Proof of Life is another one of those cases where the behind-the-scenes stuff is a lot more interesting than what wound up on the screen. Start with William Prochnau's 1998 Vanity Fair article, which Proof of Life is based on. Prochnau reported back from Colombia, the so-called Kidnap Capital of the World. Each year, literally thousands of people, including American corporate executives, are taken hostage, then ransomed for exorbitant sums. The kidnappers, members of Colombia's rebel factions, used to want to buck the system; now they just want the bucks. And the whole thing is run like a cottage industry--the K & R industry, it's called, kidnap and ransom. Companies have even sprung up that specialize in kidnap-negotiation services, Western companies manned by ex-spies, ex-cops, ex-special forces personnel, former employees of Scotland Yard. There's a protocol for these operations. (Death threats are a good sign, Prochnau is told.) And part of that protocol is "proof of life"--providing the grieving family with evidence that its loved one is still alive. Sounds like the makings of a gripping movie, doesn't it--something along the lines of Costa-Gavras' Missing or Oliver Stone's Salvador. Now factor in the movie's shoot, which, if Prochnau's account in Premiere magazine is to be believed, deserved to be memorialized in a Burden of Dreams-like documentary. Filming high in the mountains of Ecuador, the movie's cast and crew were subjected to political turmoil, blinding sheets of rain, mudslides, altitude sickness and the constant threat of being kidnapped themselves. Then tragedy struck: A stand-in for actor David Morse was killed when the truck he was riding in veered off a mountain road and plunged 350 feet. Oh, and did I mention that not one but two volcanoes near where the filming was going on suddenly became active? So arduous and calamitous was the production's trip to South America that director Taylor Hackford claims not to have noticed that his two stars, Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, were having an affair during the whole thing, Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid having veered off its own mountain road.
Now, there's the movie itself, and I regret to say that almost none of that intensity has made it onto the screen. Blame the script, not a single word of which I believed. But also blame Hackford, who put everybody through hell just so he could make another Hollywood movie in which the problems of the Third World are eclipsed by the love/lust that a pair of gringos feel for each other. Ryan is the wife of an engineer (Morse) who, in a not-all-that-harrowing scene, is taken from his car at gunpoint in broad daylight. Crowe is a kidnap-and-ransom specialist based in London. In some weird variation of the Stockholm syndrome, she starts identifying with him, then falls in love with him. And despite a monumentally stiff upper lip, he falls in love with her. So much for the husband, who's starving and freezing his ass off. Ryan, who's way out of her cutesy-poo league, fails to indicate the complex emotions her character should be going through. And Crowe seems content to read his lines softly and slowly. I guess all the good stuff happened back in their trailers.