What do Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, the Philippines, Cambodia, Yemen, Nigeria, Angola and Russia have in common? Sadly, travelers to these destinations run the highest risk of kidnapping, as these countries lead in what has become a global epidemic. In the last ten years, it is estimated that there have been over 30,000 kidnappings worldwide (averaging out to almost one every week) which have generated ransom demands in excess of $160 billion US dollars.
As opposed to the politically motivated kidnappers of the Seventies and early Eighties, kidnappers today are primarily motivated by monetary gain. With the end of the Cold War, Marxist insurgents around the world suddenly found their Soviet funding severely curtailed, and desperately needed to seek new economic lifelines. Though many found salvation in the illicit drug trade, these guerilla groups also turned to kidnapping for ransom as a quick and easy way to ensure their continued struggle. However, instead of being a means to and end, these new sources of revenue eventually became the end. As a result, the original political goals of these organizations became supplanted by the overwhelming desire to exploit these new cash cows to the fullest.
As this paradigm shift in terrorism was taking place, would-be kidnappers found the global environment to be more than accommodating towards their new business model. While a large proportion of kidnap victims are locals, usually from middle- to upper-class households, kidnappers have increasingly been turning their attention to foreign travelers and executives, who are perceived to command higher ransoms because of their Western affluence. And with trends such as the increased popularity of recreational travel to 'exotic' locales and the increased volume of commerce conducted across international borders, kidnappers are gaining easier access to their 'raw materials'.
As a result, many corporations with global operations now use the services of so-called K&R (kidnapping & ransom) firms, such as Zurich, Pinkerton, Kroll Associates, and most notably CRG, which has been popularized in the novels by Dick Francis. In addition to furnishing insurance coverage for the direct and indirect costs of kidnapping, these firms provide advice, threat analysis, and training to their clients to mitigate the risk from terrorist incidents-- everything from determining 'safe routes' to and from work to minimizing the use of company logos as a means of thwarting 'logo-hunting' kidnappers.
With material drawn from William Prochnau's Vanity Fair article "Adventures in the Ransom Trade" and Tom Hargrove's book "Long March to Freedom", "The Devil's Advocate" director Taylor Hackford takes viewers into this unseen world of K&R consulting in the new film "Proof of Life". And though the film benefits from the story's intriguing subject matter, as well as the rugged screen presence of Russell Crowe (hot off "Gladiator"), the film's workman-like script and almost mechanical execution make it less 'lively' than one would expect.
Crowe plays Terry Thorne, a former SAS officer turned consultant in the employ of a British K&R firm. His latest assignment sends him to the fictional South American country of Tecala, after revolutionary terrorists known as the ELT kidnap American engineer Peter Bowman (David Morse of "The Green Mile") while stopped at a roadblock. Despite Peter's claims to the contrary, the ELT guerillas view him as guilty from his association with an American oil company strongly tied to the Tecalan government, and subsequently hold him for a $3 million ransom.
In his first order of business, Terry makes contact with Peter's wife, Alice (Meg Ryan of "You've Got Mail"), who has been devastated by the unfortunate turn of events, as well as his older sister Janis (Pamela Reed of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"), whose abrasive attitude is more of a hindrance than help. Unfortunately, Terry has his work cut out for him, as the ELT has spirited Peter far off into the Tecalan countryside, where he must wait under appalling conditions (including the constant threat of punishment or death) for either ransom or rescue. To complicate matters worse, the collapse of Peter's employer leaves Alice without K&R coverage or assistance, and Terry without a contract to continue negotiations for Peter's release.
As a thriller, "Proof of Life" is passable, as there are enough pyrotechnics and action sequences to engage audience interest. Unfortunately, the story is told in a very mechanical fashion, with each scene delivering the requisite information to advance the plot without the benefit of subtext or emotional resonance. Even when Tony Gilroy's script attempts to inject tension into the story, the results appear blatantly scripted-- an early scene meant to illustrate the ailing domestic bliss between Peter and Alice falls flat, as does the seemingly-arbitrary romance that develops between Terry and Alice, which played out more as an afterthought.
In addition, the script doesn't dig too deep when it comes to dramatizing Peter's plight or shedding light on why his captors feel justified in holding him for ransom. Instead, the audience is treated to wordy exposition on why K&R has become big business, while Peter's captors are presented as generic villains who have no motivation, other than to make Peter's life as miserable as possible. Contrast this to John Sayles' "Men with Guns" from a few years ago, which provided plenty of provocative food for thought on the roots of instability in Latin American countries, and how none of the issues nor their solutions were as clear-cut as many believe.
Performance-wise, Crowe brings the requisite level of self-assurance and conviction to the film, though he is constrained by his character's shallow development. Ryan does an adequate job as the bereaved wife, which is a nice change from the usually airy performances in romantic-comedies that she is better known for. Unfortunately, Crowe and Ryan don't quite seem to click on screen, despite their well-publicized on-set affair, further eroding the credibility of the Terry-Alice romance. In the supporting roles, Morse acquits himself well in handling the physical and dramatic requirements of playing Peter, David Caruso (who's been MIA for the latter part of the Nineties) injects some much-welcome wit as Terry's partner in the K&R business, while Reed is adequate as Alice's pathologically-paranoid sister-in-law.
In summary, don't be held hostage by "Proof of Life", as it is an adequate actioner that squanders its two superstar leads, intriguing subject matter, and exotic locales. Instead of exploring the fascinating world of K&R with an emotionally-engaging and thought-provoking story, "Proof of Life" ends up blandly playing it safe by sticking to generic thriller conventions, with some arbitrary romance thrown in for good measure.