It’s the rare film that manages to tackle more than one genre and succeed – a "comedy-drama" is usually neither. Proof of Life is an exception – it’s equal parts suspense thriller, unrequited love story, case study of what binds a marriage, and paramilitary dark op shoot-em-up. Remarkably, all four of the pieces work in concert. It’s an involving film with much to recommend it, anchored by a great Russell Crowe performance.
Peter Bowman (David Morse) is an American engineer leading the efforts to build a dam in the remote South American country of Tecala so that his company’s oil pipeline can traverse the Andes. He and his wife Alice (Meg Ryan) have hopscotched the globe over the past eight years and his devotion to work over family is fraying their marriage. When Peter is kidnapped during a terrorist raid on the capital, Alice is shattered to learn that his company has let its Kidnapping & Ransom insurance expire – she’s alone in her seemingly hopeless quest to raise the $3 million needed to get Peter back alive. Alone, that is, until Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) takes a personal interest in the case. Thorne’s an Australian SAS veteran who makes a living from extracting kidnapping victims from high-risk scenarios. His own marriage has paid the price for his covert and solitary life and he sees helping the Bowmans as his personal chance for redemption. But as the ordeal drags on, Alice and Terry seek solace and comfort in each other and the imposed closeness of their relationship begins to fill the vacuums that have occupied their respective lives.
Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) kicks the film into high gear straight off – there’s a crackling opening title sequence that effectively shows the type of business that Terry engages in while cleverly contrasting it with a voiceover of his terse, dry post-operation report. Tony Gilroy adapted his screenplay from a 1998 Vanity Fair article by William Prochnow, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade." The film’s title refers to the periodic reassurance that kidnap victims’ families ask for to know that their loved ones are still alive, and throughout the film the story instructs as much as it entertains, parceling out factoids about how the Kidnapping and Ransom business really operates. Hackford interlaces the film’s four story lines well, effectively moving from tense scenes at gunpoint to tender ones, as where Alice and Peter separately recall the reasons why they fell in love.
In his relatively brief career Russell Crowe has already been convincing as an LA detective, a paunchy middle-aged businessman, and a Roman combatant. His Terry Thorne is a complex canvas that adds to his impressive string of performances. He’s a calculating and introspective man, but strong and brutal when needed in action. His attraction for Alice arrives slowly (he’s as surprised as he is grateful) and it manifests itself in subtle looks and postures. Crowe does a fine job of conveying emotional turmoil without overblown gestures or histrionics; it’s a wonderfully economical performance. David Morse takes the thankless role of Forlorn Captive and invests it with intelligence and complexity. Even the smaller performances are rich ones – David Caruso goes a long way to make up for Jade by giving his professional mercenary more dimensions than the average Rambo. Pamela Reed turns in a brief but pithy appearance as Peter’s sister. The scenes between her and Alice perfectly capture the factors at play in an extended family.
The film’s weakest point is Meg Ryan’s performance – she seldom manages to raise Alice above simple hand wringing and tears. In Ryan’s defense, part of the problem is that Crowe’s performance is so strong that it continually leaves her invisible in his penumbra. During their scenes together he almost pushes her off the screen. The film’s a tad long (almost 2 � hours) and there’s a half-hour middle stretch that’s very slow. Instead of bringing the film to a halt, though, it serves to effectively convey the tedious war of attrition into which many kidnapping situations deteriorate. The climactic sequences that follow will surely get your adrenaline flowing again.
– Bob Aulert