Proof of Life
review by Gregory Avery, 15 December 2000

Proof of Life, Taylor Hackford's international hostage-negotiation thriller, turns out to be a movie about David Morse's feet. Morse, playing an engineer trying to build a dam that would benefit the people of a South American company, is not wearing the proper foot apparel when he is yanked from his car by gun-toting guerrillas and marched into the underbrush. They march up rocky slopes, across snowy peaks, through acrid mud and jungle shrubbery. At one point, the engineer stops and pulls out a gigantic thorn that has torn its way through one shoe and into his foot. By the time he reaches camp, his footwear has all but disintegrated, and he has to sit in the mud and the cold and the rain. When a Polaroid is taken to send back for ransom demands, his swollen, misshapen, bloodied feet -- which have been whacked a few times for good measure by his captors before the picture is taken -- are as prominent in the photo as his haggard, stubbly face.

Morse's portrayal of the engineer, as a man whose sense of purpose and humanity are sorely put to the test, is actually quite good, as is the supporting work by Pamela Reed (excellent as the engineer's sister, whose outrage and indignation become tempered by compassion), Gottfried John (one of Fassbinder's regular actors, and who still has that marvelous, hawk-like face seen in earlier films), and, in some of his scenes, David Caruso (who doesn't so much appear in this film as seem flung in and out of it much of the time). Otherwise, although the filmmakers have worked, and reworked, the material so that a tense, tight mood is sustained throughout (with Danny Elfman's music thundering away on the soundtrack), there's really not much of anything else going on in this picture. Russell Crowe plays a professional negotiator who specializes in handling kidnap-for-ransom situations for various corporations. When the company the engineer works for declines to help get him back, the negotiator leaves, then, out of the goodness of his heart, comes back to help the engineer's wife (Meg Ryan) rescue her husband and not get hoodwinked by unscrupulous people in the process.

Crowe spends a lot of time gently leaning over a radio and softly dickering with people on the other end of the frequency, or issuing terse instructions. Ryan bravely fights back tears. Crowe acts strong and silent. Ryan acts noble yet conscience-stricken (her character had a bitter argument with her husband the night before his abduction). Although Crowe and Ryan struggle to imbue their characters with some sort of active cognizance, neither of them seems to have any sort of inner life. There's no explanation as to why the negotiator seems to have all the time in the world to hang around dawdling over this one situation, or why the wife doesn't suddenly flip-out and become hysterical over why things are taking so long to be resolved. The two leads do cast long, yearning glances at each other from time to time, but their relationship is so chaste as to seem practically moribund. When the negotiator is accused of falling in love with the wife of the man whose life he's trying to save -- now, that would've been interesting! -- you figure that, from what we've seen, they must have gotten him confused with somebody else.

Somebody did figure out that this picture was going to need a slam-bang finish, so that's what we get, although it's one of those sequences where you see a lot of weapons being fired and a lot of people being hit and things blowing up but you otherwise can't figure out what you're supposed to be looking at. The film ends on a note of wistfulness, which is not enough to cancel out the fact that the grainy, color-desaturated cinematography makes all the South American characters in the film look grimy and unpleasant. Whatever their grievances are, living in a country that's described in the story as being second only to Colombia in terms of corruption and lawlessness, they're not utmost on this film's agenda.

Directed by:
Taylor Hackford

Meg Ryan
Russell Crowe
David Morse
Pamela Reed
Gottfried John
David Caruso

Written by:
Tony Gilroy





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