Proof of Life
dir: Taylor Hackford, R
Opens Friday at area theaters
Like so many fiction films adapted from nonfiction materials, Proof of Life has a fascinating core. In troubled Third World nation-states, Americans, Europeans, and other civilized types who work for multinational corporations risk becoming the targets of terrorism. Their employers insure them against the possibility that they will be kidnapped and held for ransom, and the insurance companies employ specially trained negotiators and mercenaries to handle the inevitable claims and retrieve the human resources. William Prochnau wrote about the work of these “Kidnap and Ransom” consultants in a Vanity Fair article titled “Adventures in the Ransom Trade,” which screenwriter Tony Gilroy turned into a Warner Brothers thriller, with additional material from Tom Hargrove’s first-person account of his 334 days in the hands of Colombian rebels.
So how does one turn a true story about a dangerous, cynical occupation into a film that stars Meg Ryan? Add a leading lady, and you’ve got to add a romance. Ryan plays Alice Bowman, the wife of an oil company engineer (played by David Morse) who’s been abducted by paramilitary drug dealers in a Latin American country. The insurer’s K&R point man, Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), is called in, but the process is complicated by the fact that the oil company has been bought out and Alice’s husband is no longer insured. Nevertheless, Thorne and an ad hoc group of soldiers of fortune take the case, whittling down the monetary demands week after week, and finally staging an Entebbe-like rescue operation. All the while, Thorne and the client are growing closer, until (inevitably, in a major-studio thriller) one of Thorne’s buddies warns him that he’s losing the objectivity necessary for his job“It’s personal now, isn’t it?”
Getting some heart into this harrowing picture of people with their humanity torn to shreds is a tall order. In retrospect, it might have been better to let the weird doublethink and compartmentalization strategies of the hostage, the captors, the family, and the company flacks speak for themselves. Director Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Dolores Claiborne) opts to bring the tensions right up front by having the characters talk about their different responses to the tragedy. Alice and her sister-in-law (Pamela Reed) scream about who loves the captive more, Alice and Thorne bond over discussions of the latter’s preteen son, Thorne and an extroverted colleague (David Caruso) argue about the demands of their job.
In Gilroy’s obvious, bathetic script, none of these conversations rings true. Each character gets a laundry list of quirks, traits, and qualities designed to make them fully roundedAlice has to be an ex-hippie unfulfilled by the role of company spouse, her husband has to be a do-gooder disgusted by the upper-class vices of his two-dimensional bosses. But instead of adding to the film, these descriptive details distract from the true drama of men at work.
The heart of this story is almost physically embodied in Crowe, a fireplug of an actor with hooded eyes and an unprepossessing athleticism. He is completely convincing as a former Special Forces soldier, a man who knows how to detach and do his job. And watching him work, in the mountain rescue sequence that is the film’s most effective segment, is mesmerizing. Director Hackford’s quick-cut and quick-pan sequence fails to keep us oriented during this half-hour, but Crowe and to a lesser extent Caruso keep our sympathies and our credulity as ready-to-hand as their tear-gas grenades. That’s not easy to do when you scrag a dozen anonymous peasants and you’re not a crusading, ideological hero.
Against that kind of authentic-ityCrowe even gets to keep his Aussie accentnothing else in the film works as well. Morse achieves some remarkable moments in his story line, trying to avoid the Stockholm syndrome by conserving and strategically releasing his anger. But Ryan is at sea, and the entire romance that is supposed to give us an entry point into Thorne’s humanity fails utterly. Too bad Hackford and Gilroy didn’t realize that watching Thorne do his jobhis impossible, contradictory, dehumanizing jobis plenty human enough.
When it comes to weather porn, the new ice opera Vertical Limit is strictly softcore. Hardcore weather porn is the uncut stuff: Weather Channel specials, World’s Deadliest Hailstorms, camcorder footage of a cyclone pitching somebody’s trailer into the next county. No plot, no sops to respectability, just one money shot after another of Mother Nature hittin’ her spot. At heart, that’s all weather-porn junkies crave anyway.
However, like red-faced businessmen who pretend to skim Barely Legal for playground equipment, some viewers insist on deceiving themselves that they want their weather porn laced with cinematic niceties. Thus are born softcore Al Roker roughies such as Twister and The Perfect Storm. A little plot, a few name actors, a whisper of noble purpose“This film is dedicated to America’s fearless tornado chasers!”and audiences can act as if they didn’t pay to see the meteorological version of a cockfight. The same goes for Vertical Limit, an unsatisfying marriage of IMAX visuals to a GAF Viewmaster script.
The hero is Chris O’Donnell, a wooden Webelos of an actor who is clean, thrifty, obedient, and trustworthy, but not, alas, silent. Shutterbug O’Donnell and his sister, ace mountain climber Robin Tunney, haven’t spoken much since a shared family trauma. But when Sis ventures up the face of K2, the world’s second highest peak, O’Donnell looks on with concern. Near the peak, needless to say, a freak windstorm whips up. The climbing team ends up in a crevasse, and O’Donnell must overcome his high anxiety to assemble a rescue party.
The ascent is an excuse for director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro) to do what he does best: call in the second unit. The aerial photography of sculpted peaks and dizzying chasms is indeed breathtaking, and there are a couple of high-tension action scenes that pack all the thrills promised by the kick-ass trailer. Whenever interest lags, Campbell and his effects team trigger an explosion or avalanche. The latter tends to look like someone emptying a fire extinguisher in the viewer’s face; it’s usually accompanied by a roar not unlike a rock tumbler run through a Marshall stack. This is the good stuff.
The bad stuff, meanwhile, is the same cardboard plotting and rote characterization that made the exposition in Twister and The Perfect Storm so laughable. There’s some nonsense about a crusty mountaineer (Scott Glenn) with a frozen wife and a secret agenda. There are also some horrible comic-relief Australians, a devout Muslim, a kick-ass chick with lashes almost as long as O’Donnell’sand, oh yeah, the nitroglycerin. This elusive substance is so volatile that a bootprint’s worth will leave a crater; yet if you carry it up a cliff face in a backpack, battered by wind and constant motion, it’ll ride just fine.
Weather porn isn’t exactly an art form to inspire. Far superior would be a movie that conveyed character strictly through action and behavior under pressurea reminder why man versus the elements is one of the defining conflicts of literature. Why have all the cornball backstory and the cartoon villainy? As it stands, the movie’s fine as long as it sticks to scenery and snowy wrath. It’s the human element of Vertical Limit that leaves viewers horizontal.
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