The new hostage thriller Proof Of Life proves that Hollywood is still capable of producing quality entertainment when there is some competency both in front of and behind the camera. A solid, engrossing adventure from start to finish, Life is the first big-budget movie in a while to deliver a high level of entertainment value for its viewer.
Russell Crowe plays a professional hostage negotiator named Terry Thorne, who is sent down to a fictional South American country named Tecala in the attempts to free an American engineer named Peter Bowman (David Morse) who has been kidnapped by a Marxist revolutionary organization named ELT. Not surprisingly, Peter’s wife Alice (Meg Ryan) is quite shaken up by the ordeal, and Terry does his best to help Mrs. Bowman and her sister-in-law Janis (Pamela Reed) focus and keep calm. But when the company Peter was working for does some business reshuffling and leaves her without the insurance needed to keep Terry in their service, she is stuck with the inept local authority instead.
Terry has a personal change of heart however and decides to return on his own to help Alice get Peter back. This begins a lengthy ordeal that is filled with bartering for a reasonable ransom, false hopes and more than a few twists and turns along the way. It is also a period in which Alice and Terry begin to form a relationship that may or may not lead to something else (insert your own tabloid headline/smart ass comment here).
While Tony Gilroy’s screenplay may be filled with some silly dialogue and occasional lulls in logic, it does a credible job with keeping the viewer involved in the action throughout its 135-minute running time. I’m not entirely sure if this is how hostage negotiation is handled, but what is represented in the film makes for riveting drama. Gilroy also fleshes out Peter’s kidnapping ordeal and makes it more than just a plot device (a lot of that success should also be given to actor David Morse).
Director Taylor Hackford, whose last film was the extraordinarily whacked thriller Devil’s Advocate, does a nice job bringing Gilroy’s screenplay to life. He keeps the pace going at a nice clip, stumbling only when it comes to his handling of the romantic subplot between Alice and Terry. While one scene does remain in which the two kiss (and some dialogue to go along with said smooch), there is nothing else in the final print to suggest the two did anything beyond talk to each other. Aside from that, his documentary-style approach to the material and expert handling of the intense action scenes help make this film a welcome relief to a genre suffering from music video filmmaking overkill.
As for the cast, they are uniformly solid. Crowe is completely believable as Thorne, giving his character a nice balance of control and intensity. As in Gladiator, L.A. Confidential or The Insider, Russell Crowe proves once again that he is one of the best actors working today. Ryan, still trying to find her dramatic footing, doesn’t fare as well but still delivers a solid performance, one that is on a level with her work in 1998’s City Of Angels. Despite the choppy presentation of the romance angle, their onscreen chemistry works well (I really could care less about their affair offscreen, and so should you). David Morse excels as Peter, wonderfully conveying fear, dignity, anger and desperation, while David Caruso has a nice turn as Peter’s friend who also happens to be a hostage negotiator. Only Pamela Reed seems occasionally one-note as the sister-in-law, who takes a hike from the flick about one hour into it.
Proof Of Life isn’t Oscar material and it’s not going to change your life, but it will entertain you while you are watching it. It’s involving, it’s engrossing and it is, for the most part, expertly made fun. When was the last time you heard me (or for that matter, yourself) say that about a mainstream Hollywood film?