Still paying off that student loan? Need some seed capital for that pancakes-by-mail Internet company you cooked up? Just enjoy putting black bags on people’s heads and taking them for hikes in the mountains? Maybe the K&R business is for you.
K&R, as we learn in director Taylor Hackford’s technically sound but cold new film Proof of Life, is shorthand for kidnap and ransom, a venerable industry in certain Latin American hot spots. It’s profitable both for the kidnappers—usually corrupt revolutionary groups more interested in making money and coke than changing the world—and the men who specialize in retrieving your snatched oil executive or Colombian judge.
Billions in kidnap insurance premiums are paid each year by large companies, particularly those with business interests in Colombia—or Tecala, the fictionalized Colombia in which our story is set. Peter and Alice Bowman (David Morse and Meg Ryan) are a bickering American couple living in the danger zone while engineer Peter builds a dam. He’s doing it to prevent flooding, but the shadowy group that snatches him up expects a big payday from the oil company for which he’s subcontracted.
Alice gets help from Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a badass Australian negotiator who has a cool adventure during the opening credits. Terry briefly ditches Alice when he finds out she doesn’t have insurance, but something about the case (could it be Alice’s selection of culturally diverse yet still slightly slutty outfits?) brings him back to help gratis.
Despite the torrid off-screen affair between the stars, what Proof of Life lacks most is a human pulse. It’s well-shot, thoughtfully written, competently acted—and almost completely devoid of the passion or swagger that makes a movie worth seeing. All of the principals treat an incredibly traumatic event with a depressingly large measure of stoicism; that might be reality, but it’s not good cinema. As an audience, we’d like to be told that an international hostage drama is more, well, dramatic.
Proof of Life is much more comfortable dealing with the machinations of kidnapping than with the attendant emotions. We receive a reasonably complete primer course in the art of hostage negotiation. It’s a maddening business, and Terry needs the skills of an arbitrator, a counselor and a stockbroker in this business of predicting, gambling and waiting. It’s all quite good stuff, but everything takes so long to develop that the film’s momentum is gone well before a somewhat trumped-up action finale.
Though his photographs of the ridiculously lush mountain jungles of Tecala (the picture was filmed mostly in Ecuador) are splendid, Hackford is the latest filmmaker who must be reminded that characters standing around smoking and looking at each other instead of talking aren’t deeper and more compelling. They’re just boring. Everyone seems somewhat lacking in dramatic motivation here; even composer/Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman gives us a depressing, by-the-numbers political-thriller score.
It takes forever to get to a Casablanca sheen in the film’s final third that feels out of place in such an otherwise businesslike film. Proof of Life builds a romantic triangle with no romance—just a desperate, common longing to change intractable situations. Alice realizes Peter might be gone forever, and she’s got to decide how long before one goes after the hot Australian. Terry realizes he really wants to nail Alice, but he still must try to save her husband. Peter just wants to avoid gangrene.
Like the family of a kidnap victim, the audience is forced to wait out these developments the long, hard way. When resolution comes, it’s not so much catharsis as dull relief. When Terry’s job is finally done, everybody just wants to go home.
Proof of Life (R) HH1/2 Directed by Taylor Hackford. Starring Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan and David Morse.