Monday 19 September 2011

Movie Review: Proof Of Life (2000)

A romantic triangle set amidst the drama of a businessman's kidnapping in South America, Proof Of Life is engaging but flawed. A spluttering romance never quite catches fire, and an all-guns-blazing finale undermines the character-centred drama that the film patiently constructs.

Peter Bowman (David Morse) is an American construction manager, supervising a dam project in the fictional South American country of Tecala. His wife Alice (Meg Ryan) is having a hard time adjusting to life in Tecala, resulting in significant tension within the marriage. The day after a big argument, Peter is kidnapped by guerrillas belonging to the Liberation Army of Tecala (ELT) and marched at gunpoint deep into the inhospitable mountains. Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) works for a British consulting firm that specializes in negotiating hostage releases. Assigned to Peter's case, Terry meets Alice but is called back to London due to Peter's company having no kidnap insurance coverage. But Terry's brief encounter with Alice caused a connection, and he decides to return and help her on a freelance basis.

Over several months Terry conducts arduous negotiations to agree on a price for the release of Peter, while a strong attraction evolves between Terry and Alice. Terry also meets up with other hostage consultants working in Tecala, including the fiery Dino (David Caruso). Peter, meanwhile, struggles to stay alive and sane in a remote ramshackle jungle camp, where some of the guerrillas are looking for any opportunity to physically harm him while others see his value as a healthy hostage. Despite Terry's best efforts, the negotiations break down, Peter's life is thrown into jeopardy, and Terry and Dino need to decide if more drastic action is warranted, in the form of a military rescue attempt.

Director Taylor Hackford has a resume filled with flawed gems, including Against All Odds, White Nights and Everybody's All-American. Proof Of Life is littered with question marks that perforate the credibility of Tony Gilroy's script. Central to the movie's purpose, Terry's motivation for coming back to help Alice is never convincingly dealt with; the coincidence that helps Terry to identify the ELT negotiator is wild-eyed; and late in the proceeding, the reasons for the ELT sparing Peter's life on the jungle mountainside are vague. The sudden transformation of Terry from a suave negotiator to a mercenary joining a group of suddenly heavily-armed westerners launching a hastily planned jungle raid in a foreign land is also quite jarring.

Helping to traverse the rocky patches in the longish running time of 135 minute are three strong central performances. Meg Ryan in particular shines as Alice, finding the dilemma zone between fear, frustration, worry for the fate of a missing husband and growing affection for the man now in control of her life. Russell Crowe is comfortably confident as a man who rarely encounters any situation that he cannot control to his advantage. David Morse has the difficult task of playing the missing third point in the triangle, and he does well as a man who grabs onto the thought and image of his wife to maintain sanity in prolonged captivity. In an ironic example of life somewhat imitating art, the filming of Proof Of Life sparked a real-life relationship between Ryan and Crowe, destroying Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid.

Proof Of Life does benefit from some intentional loose ends related to the future happiness of the main characters. This is a welcome change from routine happy endings, and consistent with a common theme in Hackford's films: relationships are difficult, messy, and not always cheerful.

Proof Of Life's greatest strength is its relatively unique setting and stressful backdrop, exploring the rich territory of romance flourishing in times of extreme tension, when the normalcy of life is overturned and the well-established rules of day-to-day living are forcefully abandoned. Falling in love is one proof of life when there appears to be little to live for.

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