**1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse, David Caruso

Directed byTaylor Hackford

Writing credits: Tony Gilroy

Warner Bros. * 110 minutes


PROOF OF LIFE is a meta-movie — there are many different ways to watch it. On one level, PROOF OF LIFE is a proving ground for star Russell Crowe — as the first big-budget flick of his to hit screens since GLADIATOR, it's the perfect place to see if this talented actor's new reputation as hunky matinee idol is deserved.

On another level, PROOF OF LIFE could just as easily be called Proof Of Love. This is, after all, the film where co-stars Crowe and Meg Ryan met and fell head over heels for one another, managing to destroy Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid in the process. Watching for real-life romance in their onscreen chemistry (or lack thereof) ensures countless hours of celebrity gossip enjoyment.

Really, however, PROOF OF LIFE must be judged by its cinematic quality. And on that meta-level, this film, about the rescue of a kidnapped architect in South America, is merely so-so, a treat for the growing number of Crowe-philes but one that won't completely satisfy a more discriminating viewer.

There's a really good movie buried somewhere inside PROOF OF LIFE, but director Taylor Hackford isn't able to unearth it. Hackford, who rose to prominence in the 1980's with a trio of offbeat romances (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMEN, AGAINST ALL ODDS, and WHITE NIGHTS) has spent the last decade making promising ideas into lackluster movies (DOLORES CLAIBORNE, THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE). PROOF OF LIFE is like many of Hackford's films — it begins with an interesting premise, but suffers a painfully slow exposition and a weak second act. However, like many of his films, PROOF OF LIFE crackles, sputters, and starts up finally in the last half of the movie, and builds to a triumphant ending — one that almost makes you forget the yawn-inducing first act.


Meg Ryan plays Alice Bowman, a third-world humanitarian who has recently located to South America with her husband, Peter (David Morse). Peter is there to build a dam nearby, one that has political ramifications for both the local, impoverished community and Peter's rich, bureaucratic employer, who wants to build a pipeline through the area. A group of guerillas kidnap Peter and demand a ransom. That's when an international expert is brought in to handle the situation, Terry Thorne (Crowe). As he navigates the precarious situation that holds Peter's life in the balance, Terry finds himself attracted to Alice. It's a love triangle with Sandinistas in the middle.

The script, based on a Vanity Fair article and written by Tony Gilroy and William Prochnau, has great potential as both a love story and an action film— qualities that undoubtedly drew Crowe and Ryan to the project. However, the script takes an extraordinary amount of time (almost 90 minutes) to set up the premise. It often stops to explain things that are already in evidence, including unnecessary explanation of how tenuous hostage negotiation is. Is there anyone in the world who thinks this is a walk in the park?

Unlike the far superior 1998 hostage thrilled THE NEGOTIATOR, PROOF OF LIFE finds it difficult to make the discussions between Crowe and the kidnappers very interesting. Crowe sits at a table, saying the same things over and over into a telephone, while sneaking longing glances at Ryan. While scenes like that might be effective once or twice, having it serve as the ENTIRE second act of the film is a fatal choice on Hackford's part. It's not really until the last part of the film, when the action (and the suspense) start to heat up, that things get moving.

And what an ending it is. It would be improper to spill the details, but suffice to say that Crowe cements his smoldering-hero status in PROOF OF LIFE. Ryan, breaking out of her usual romantic comedy persona, is refreshingly good as Alice, playing against the inherent sentimentality and finding solid ground as a woman in crisis, but not one immobilized by it. David Morse, as the kidnapping victim, turns in a solid performance, as does Pamela Reed as Janis, Peter's interfering sister. David Caruso, clearly relishing every moment, is both fiery and fun as one of Crowe's colleagues.

Had all of PROOF OF LIFE been as engaging as it is in its final hour, it would easily be an Oscar contender. As it is, the film is merely an afternoon enjoyment. Those with low expectations will have them more than met. Those hoping for true greatness will have to look elsewhere.

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