Fri, 23 Feb 2001

No vital signs in moribund 'Proof of Life'

By Joko E.H. Anwar

Proof of Life (** out of four stars)

Drama/Action, 135 minutes

Starring: Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, David Morse,

Davis Caruso, Pamela Reed, Anthony Heald.

Directed by Taylor Hackford

A Warner Bros Release

JAKARTA (JP): In his latest film Proof of Life, Russell Crowe plays an expert who specializes in rescuing kidnapping victims. Unfortunately, there is nobody to save the audience from this boring film which shows no life at all.

And with its highly appealing cast and the director of acclaimed films such as The Devil's Advocate and Stephen King's chilling drama Dolores Claiborne, people will want to see it no matter what critics say.

What's more, Ryan and Crowe in the leading roles recently became hot talk in many publications for their real-life relationship.

But be ready to be disappointed since you will not find any on-screen chemistry between the two stars.

Are they determined to prove that there is no real romance between them with this sparkless film? Beats me. But even as an intelligent thriller, as the film is meant to be, it never gets off the ground.

The movie was inspired by an article published in Vanity Fair in May 1998 about the kidnapping business, which has been big international commerce with the ending of the Cold War.

Rebel groups who no longer can rely on financial help from the former Communist countries must seek funds to finance their agendas by other means, including kidnapping, the article said.

Well, the intriguing story surely deserves better treatment than this.

The film opens like a James Bond film, with Crowe as Terry Thorne, a K&R (Kidnap and Ransom) expert for Luthan Risk International, leading an operation in Chechnya to save a high profile victim.

The opening sequence has big blasts, crazed Russian soldiers and Thorne's heroic rescue, but fails to establish his profile as a top negotiator. The only thing which is missing is Crowe blowing away the kidnappers with a bazooka, or otherwise we will have another variation of Schwarzenegger's Commando.

Meanwhile in Tecala, South America, U.S. citizen Peter Bowman (David Morse) is an idealistic engineer working on building a dam. But he is facing the possibility of losing his job since the company he is working for was bought by an oil company which favors more commercial projects than the ones he works on.

His wife Alice (Ryan) is not that unhappy with the situation since that means that they will possibly go back to their home country.

"I don't want to get pregnant in a Third World country again," she says, reminding her husband of her miscarriage earlier in Africa.

During their shaky relationship, Peter is then taken prisoner by the ELT (Liberation Army of Tecala), a guerrilla force who used to have a political agenda in opposition to the government. The movement then turned into a money-oriented organization specializing in drug production and kidnapping for ransom.

The abduction sequence, by the way, is heart-pounding, promising a good set up for the film to finally take off. (The scene is otherwise notable as David Morse's stunt double was killed during the filming after the truck he was in drove off a cliff). Morse is highly believable as an intelligent, strong man who has to face a less civilized group of people.

Like in several good films involving kidnapping such as The Crying Game and Ransom, the interaction between Peter and one of his abductors, a young woman, develops nicely. The film even succeeds in avoiding the usual kidnapper-and-victim relationship portrayed in the two former films.

And the movie might have been better off focusing on that plot since the supposedly romantic theme does not work and only weighs down the entire film.

Terry is then assigned by his company to head an operation to save the engineer from the captors who demand a US$3 million ransom.

The operation is eventually cancelled since Peter's company, due to its new status, concludes that it cannot pay the ransom and declines the service which is offered by the rescuing company.

After neglecting Alice and her sister-in-law Janis (Pamela Reed) who then seeks help from local negotiators, Terry comes back to her and agrees to help her out for free. Terry's motivation to accept the high-risk task is never quite explained (but then the client is Meg Ryan).

And what about Terry's company? Won't it be ticked off since Terry will be out for quite a long time helping Alice? Surely they will need Terry to work for them for some more profitable operation, won't they? Such is filmdom and feasibility.

Terry's K&R buddy, Dino (David Caruso), tries to justify Terry's decision by asking if Terry is attracted to Alice.

During his attempt to save Alice's husband, Terry's interest in Alice (supposedly) grows stronger. There is an inevitable kissing scene, but the audience's belief in the couple is already gone long before that.

Ryan seems uninspired. Her portrayal of a woman whose husband is kidnapped and may get killed even for a small mistake is never convincing.

Crowe, fresh from the great Gladiator, is still commanding but the script leaves him with a dull character.

Yes, Terry does do some work to make the kidnappers release Peter. He negotiates and gets some aid from his friends to set up a strategy. But he and Alice spend too much time clinging to each other, at least verbally.

Meanwhile, Alice's poor old husband can only count the days just like the audience which has to endure the sparkless interaction between Terry and Alice.

The film takes a sharp turn into an action vehicle during its last 30 minutes. The daring rescue scene is good enough, with a little touch of revenge fantasy involving Peter shooting one of his most surly and hostile abductors.

When it is all over, the audience is likely to feel empty. It was all there -- an intriguing idea, appealing stars, great locations -- but somehow we were denied an involving story.