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Script Review: PROOF OF LIFE - by Tony Gilroy (Rewrite: 7/6/99)

Reviewed by Christopher Wehner



Screenwriter Notes: As a writer/producer Tony Gilroy's credits include: BAIT, ARMAGEDDON, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, EXTREME MEASURES, and many more.

Review: PROOF OF LIFE is the first Tony Gilroy screenplay Ive read or reviewed, and I have to say I am impressed. I've known of him, seen his films, and that's about it. As for this screenplay, Gilroy was assigned to write it based on a Vanity Fair article titled, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade," written by William Prochnau.

The film has a great cast. Russell Crowe plays Terry Thorne, an ex-Special Forces unit member. Terry is English in the script, but that has been changed to Australian to suit Russell. Meg Ryan plays the wife (Alice, which was changed to Alicia by the time filming started.) of a U.S. corporate executive (Peter) who is kidnapped by ex-Colombian drug lords turned rebels. They target rich Americans and demand ransom as a means of sustaining their needs as soldiers and rebels. The local government is useless as it is corrupt and inept.

(PROOF OF LIFE production photo courtesy of, Proof of Life page)

The story is mobile, it opens in Russia, Chechnya to be exact. We meet Terry (Russell Crowe) who is neck deep in shit. He is desperately trying to facilitate the resolution of a botched mission. A very cool opening, as awesome a sequence of action and drama I've read in awhile. The story then shifts to South America. (I hear the shooting locations include: Ecuador, London, England and Poland.)

Gilroys writing style reminds me of two very different writers, and I agree it is an odd combination: William Goldman and Joe Eszterhas. Dont laugh. In the draft Im reading Gilroy uses no Slug lines, also called "Headings." Screenplays are comprised, basically, of three important structural devices: Slug lines (scene headings), Exposition (also known as description), and Dialogue. A Slugline looks like this: EXT. (exterior) INT. (interior), then the LOCATION (hotel room, parking lot, jungle you get the picture) and finally we need to know if its DAY or NIGHT.

Gilroys draft is void of the important details that comprise Slug lines. Which is what William Goldman is known for, among other things. For a great example read his BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID screenplay. Now a script without this kind of description (shown above) can be confusing to read. If it is dark, or day, could be very important to the integrity of a particular scene. Gilroy, also like Goldman, never comprises this aspect. The scenes are full of rich content and description. I really feel this style makes screenplays more readable and enjoyable, especially for someone not familiar with the form. (Note: new-be writers, please do not write your screenplay like these gentlemen, they are seasoned pros, they can get away with it. You will not. Send in a script without Slug lines and the reader wont even bother with it.)

Gilroys writing also has a nice pace and feel, much like Eszterhas does (his script BASIC INSTINCT is truly masterful work.) The exposition is simply excellent. His prose is witty, but not intrusive. The story is very strong and full of suspense, action and drama. The action moves along at a measured pace, and the script is a breeze to read. Ive mention this before, but a writer must be in command of the story. This does not mean that your characters can not sometimes take you in a new direction as you are writing, it simply means the writer knows his ending and is always working his story to that goal. Nothing is comprised.

We soon realize Terry is worn-out, for months hes been around the world taking care of hostage situations. He wants out. But as usual a situation develops, this time in South American. Terrys number is called.

Terry works for a company called Risk Management International (RMI). They are made-up of ex-special agents, and soldiers, who are trained in hostage and terrorist situations. They are hired by insurance companies to negotiate and facilitate the safe return of hostages. They make contact with the kidnappers, negotiate, and in the end go in with the money for the exchange. Sometimes things can go terribly wrong and more is required.

In South American is where we meet Alice (Meg Ryan), her husband has been kidnapped. She's distressed, visibly upset, and looking for any hope that she might get her husband back. Enter Terry. He is very cool, doesnt get rattled, a real pro. He brings a calming presence to the situation. I did have a hard time with him falling for Alice and compromising the situation with their relationship. A professional would never do this, right?

Crowe should be great as Terry. As we know he brings a lot to the table as an actor. Crowe has that eye-gazing intensity and forcefulness, and the script is written in such a way that Crowe should have plenty of opportunities to perform.

The story is setup well. We clearly can see Terry is beat up, tired and doesnt like his job anymore. In a great sequence RMI discovers that Peters firm has no coverage, the jobs over. Terry now must leave after he had promised to help Alice. In a way he really does want to leave, he's had it. But, he also has made a connection with her and wants to help her. There is some great writing here, the scene where he has to decide to stay or leave is well done. Ultimately this situation gives Terry what he has been looking for, a reason. Hes been all over the world as a hired negotiator dealing with scum-bags. He's tired emotionally as well as physically. Helping Alice was what he wanted to do, it was the good thing to do. He wasnt getting paid, the hostage wasnt just some person he didnt really care about. He loved the action, he's a soldier at heart. He becomes emotionally involved in situation, which could lead to trouble!

The relationship between Alice and Terry is well written. The story line is believable, even though I did have a hard time with it at points.

Another good thing about the story is the development of the hostage character, Peter. We actually get to know the poor bastard. This story line is developed with great care. We meet him before he is taken, we get know his friends a little, and of course his loved ones. This development serves the story well, the audience will really care for the guy. Theyll want to see him make it out. He goes through a lot, and the setup and payoff are there. I really enjoyed this script.

The movie is set to be released around Christmas, 2000. It also stars David Caruso as Dino, David Morse as Peter, and others.

The director is Taylor Hackford (AGAINST ALL ODDS, EVERYBODYS ALL-AMERICAN, THE DEVILS ADVOCATE, and many others). With Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe headlining, and with a great script, excellent director, all the pieces are in place for a possible box office hit.

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