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All locked up with no place to go

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[Photo: Castle Rock Entertainment]
The real-life relationship between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, center, and proves more interesting than the one between the characters they play in Proof of Life.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


Meg Ryan merely distracts from the kidnap-and-ransom macho plot of Proof of Life.David E. Kelley creates, writes and directs groundbreaking TV.

The "woman left behind" is as much of an action-movie cliche as T-shirts ripping at the first hint of trouble and guns that never need reloading.

These roles typically serve three purposes in as few scenes possible: Show what the hero/victim will miss, fret while he's gone, and welcome him back home safely. Worry isn't much of a stretch. Any female actor, maybe even a cross-dresser, can easily pull it off.

Proof of Life mistakenly gives that assignment to Meg Ryan, a movie star whose status demands more screen time. Her presence constantly distracts director Taylor Hackford from the true purpose of the film, showing macho men playing war games.

Whether Ryan has the acting ability to upstage mayhem isn't important. Proof of Life rarely offers a chance to try. Her character, Alice Bowman, is just an exaggeration of every woman left behind before. Viewers get too much home life, amplified worry and a reunion with shameless Casablanca aspirations. No female actor, or cross-dresser, could keep this role interesting as scripted by Tony Gilroy.

Alice is a free spirit -- "a little hippie" -- who somehow married Peter, an uptight oil company engineer. Peter is building a dam in fictional Tecala in the Andes Mountains. He gets nabbed purely by chance by rebel forces sensing a big payday from corporate kidnapping insurance.

A firm is hired to negotiate a deal with Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) as point man. Terry's abilities as a last-resort rescue ace has been shown in a violent Chechnya-based prologue. Most of the time, he works the telephone trying to drop the price. Words are more common than action in Proof of Life.

Gilroy's screenplay was inspired by two intriguing sources: William Prochnau's Vanity Fair article, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade," and Thomas Hargrove's hostage memoir, Long March to Freedom. Both dealt with South American guerrillas kidnapping U.S. executives and firms specializing in K&R (kidnap and ransom) operations to free them. Women left behind didn't have much to do with the stories.

Ryan's involvement forced the filmmakers to include her in the affair somehow, at the expense of excitement. While things get hopping with the guys, Hackford wonders how Alice feels about all this. The only time danger meets her face-to-face, Alice is left gaping on the sidelines while Terry does her fighting for her. Followed, of course, by another scene describing how Alice feels about all this.

When that approach gets stale, Gilroy pulls a romantic angle out of thin air. Alice and Terry begin doing all those little things lovers do, such as drinking from the same glass and a kiss before battle. Her marriage didn't seem troublesome and her husband is fighting for his life (with her photo for comfort), so the adultery angle is lackluster.

Unless you read the tabloids, that is. Ryan and Crowe did become, um, friendly on the set, jeopardizing her marriage to Dennis Quaid. Gossip fans looking for sparks on screen will be disappointed. The emotions between Terry and Alice arrive too late, with only one heartfelt conversation overheard before we're expected to buy into their passion. Real-life publicity almost turns the theme -- saving the husband of the woman you love -- into a bad joke.

When Alice isn't around, Proof of Life can focus on the ideas that impressed Gilroy in the beginning. Sterile board meetings to discuss lethal tactics are gripping, but too brief. Terry merges with a gung-ho mercenary (David Caruso, in a nice comeback) to form a boys club of back-slapping and walkie-talkie talk when things get hairy. The film's bookended skirmishes are well-executed.

Peter's hostage experience also works, with David Morse (The Green Mile, Dancer in the Dark) once again proving himself one of our most underrated actors. Peter is fearful, then plays cagey mind games with his stoned, undisciplined captors. Hackford could simply tell Peter's story, with Terry and his crew working on the other end, and Proof of Life would be a much better film.

Instead, it's all about Alice. And Ryan, who still can't avoid looking like Sally without Harry when she tackles serious parts. She's here to emote while everyone else wants to play soldiers of fortune. Ryan has the salary to demand it, becoming the first woman left behind to ever hold a kidnap movie for ransom.

Proof of Life

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