PROOF OF LIFE (Taylor Hackford, 2000)

Trimmed of the profanity and excessive violence that got it an “R” rating, the network version of Proof of Life is probably the best one around. It’s what I saw, and the assurance in the credits that it was all “inspired” by an article (by William Prochnau) and a book (by Thomas Hargrove) seems like legal cover. Remember Soldier of Fortune (Edward Dmytryk, 1955) starring Susan Hayward in her ravishing heyday, as a woman in Hong Kong who, searching for her missing husband, turns for independent help to this guy played by Clark Gable past his prime, who along the way falls in love with Hayward’s character and hopes that by rescuing her spouse he will win her heart? Maybe I’ve seen too many movies to be anything but cynical about these matters, but Proof of Life, which became infamous for accommodating the offscreen adulterous love affair between its two stars, seems mighty familiar. Nor could the switch from Hong Kong to somewhere in the mountains of South America shake the similarity. It’s a change based on topicality.

But, as anti-Communist adventures go, I prefer Soldier of Fortune; it’s colorful and mildly exciting. (The director, a Hollywood Ten member who finked out to avoid the pokey, was certifying his anti-Communism as a means of resuming his career.) Proof of Life, on the other hand, isn’t so colorful or romantic. (It misses Hong Kong and Hayward.) But when it comes to its rescue-finale, the excitement is intense, not mild. Even though the passage is a bit confused (I at least at certain points had trouble figuring out who was shooting at whom), it’s heartstopping—all en route to a Casablanca-type ending that encourages viewers to sigh over what might have been. It’s been many years; I can’t recall how Soldier of Fortune ended.

In any case, the film lives for its stars, each spankable for betraying a partner back home. Russell Crowe plays Terry Thorne, the London-based professional negotiator trying to retrieve an oil company subsidiary’s engineer from the anti-government guerrillas who have captured him. Things start hopping when Terry dons his camouflage-fatigues and becomes part of a hands-on rescue team. Crowe is dashing and smashing throughout, and a lot more full-blooded than Clark Gable and Errol Flynn ever were. His assignment couldn’t have been handled better—although this wonderful actor was born for higher things. The wife, Alice Bowman, is played by Meg Ryan, who, goodness knows, is no Susan Hayward. Emotionally, this actress is deadwood; as we watch her, we search in vain for some proof of life pertaining to her. Ryan lacks Hayward’s spark and red-headed dazzle. Her affair with Crowe helped pave the way to his marriage, and it ended her own. Without a doubt Ryan must be more interesting offscreen than she is on-.

A substantial supporting role is enacted by David Caruso, who plays Dino, a compatriot of Terry’s and a soldier of fortune. He is excellent, although saddled with a face that doesn’t invite the camera in as Crowe’s does. The same director, Taylor Hackford, gave Caruso his big early break, in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982); here, Hackford was trying to revive the no-longer-young actor’s barely breathing career. Alas, the Crowe-Ryan shenanigans overshadowed Caruso’s sterling contribution to the film, and it truly seemed as if his luck had run out. Caruso was selling ties in Florida when the hit television series CSI: Miami renewed his stardom. In the first season of N.Y.P.D. Blue in the 1990s, Caruso’s cop perhaps became the single most complex, most memorable dramatic character on TV since Richard Boone’s cultured hired gun in Have Gun, Will Travel. In a complicated situation involving back-and-forth miscommunications, Caruso ended up off the series in pursuit of a movie career that couldn’t survive the several flops in a row it incurred. Like David Janssen (Richard Diamond, Private Detective; The Fugitive), perhaps Caruso is best on the small screen.

David Morse plays the kidnapped Bowman very well, although the constant shifts between Bowman’s ordeal and his wife’s as she and Thorne try to secure his release stretch the material thin and lower the level of suspense. In retrospect, the majority of the film is little more than a feeble wind-up for the solid pitch that wins the game: the rescue. Go into this film in that frame of mind and Proof of Life has some life to it.

And Crowe, as always, is a pleasure to see.

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