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Dustin's Review
Proof of Life (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Taylor Hackford
Cast: Russell Crowe, Meg Ryan, David Morse, Pamela Reed, David Caruso, Margo Martindale.
2000 – 135 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, blood, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 8, 2000.

Taylor Hackford's new drama, "Proof of Life," bears more than a passing resemblance to 1999's Harrison Ford-Kristen Scott-Thomas box-office dud, "Random Hearts." Although their storylines are very much different, both pictures feature an attractive, mature pair of actors in a movie that gradually turns into a romance. The problem with "Proof of Life," however, is the same problem that "Random Hearts" had, which is that the movie is just not a solid or effective example of successful filmmaking. Frigid and dreary, "Proof of Life" yearns to develop a touching romance between two people that can't, and probably shouldn't, get together, but we as the audience simply don't care about the outcome. The fact that stars Russell Crowe (2000's "Gladiator") and Meg Ryan (1998's "You've Got Mail") entered into the tabloids while filming due to a real-life romance that blossomed between the two, should have at least made the on-screen proceedings charismatic and lively, but they are not. The whole movie, ambitious as it may be, relentlessly flaps there like a fish suddenly pulled out of the water, gasping for its last few breaths.

Based on both a "Vanity Fair" article by William Prochnau, and a book by Thomas Hargrove entitled "The Long March to Freedom," Meg Ryan stars as Alice Bowman, a woman living in South America with her husband, Peter (David Morse), a dam engineer. Alice yearns to return to the U.S. and get back to her own life, but Peter keeps them put, as he is too dedicated on his latest project to give it up. When Peter is unexpectedly kidnapped by a group of guerilla-terrorists, being held for a $3-million ransom, expert hostage negotiator Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe) is hired to ensure that he is not killed. But first, Terry insists that his newest clients give him and Alice proof that Peter is still alive. As the days tick by and Peter grows increasingly weak, weary, and bearded, Alice and Terry form a close, platonic work relationship that threatens to turn into something more.

That final piece of the premise is actually so inconsequential and next-to-non-existent up until the final twenty minutes of the lumbering 135-minute running time that director Taylor Hackford fails miserably when he attempts to inject bittersweet poignancy to the final scene. As played out, it is entirely ineffectual and only leaves you wondering what, exactly, the point was.

What comes beforehand really isn't much better. While the plot is adequately intriguing and could have certainly been made into a genuinely suspenseful pot-boiler, the deliberately slow pace evaporates whatever tension might have been evoked with a stronger screenplay and tighter editor. The film simply sits there, immobile, for ridiculously long stretches that include exposition scene after exposition scene so poorly conceived you are akin to forgetting what was said by the next sequence.

In an obvious attempt to break free of the cutesy romantic comedies she is best known for, the usually reliable Meg Ryan is surprisingly mediocre as the grieving Alice. Either overacting to the point of annoyance, striking a superficial performance note, or misreading her character's supposed motivations, this is not one of Ryan's high points as an actress. It isn't entirely her fault, though; the role is so thanklessly two-dimensional that she does very little throughout but look upset and hold a cigarette (which, oddly enough, she not once is ever shown inhaling).

The supporting roles are stronger and more assured, but equally underdeveloped. David Morse (2000's phenomenal "Dancer in the Dark") is put through a great ordeal as he is shown being held captive and being put through torture from the beginning to end of the movie, but does little else. Pamela Reed (1990's "Kindergarten Cop"), as Peter's worried sister, is particularly funny and gets most of the good scenes in the first half. Finally, David Caruso, as Terry's wisecracking partner, is wasted.

There is one asset of "Proof of Life" that saves it from being an all-out, big-budget disaster. Russell Crowe, in his first starring role since the critically-acclaimed, audience-favorite "Gladiator," proves yet again why he is quickly becoming one of the most popular male actors in showbiz. So self-assured and brilliant in every respect, Crowe carries himself with a red-hot intensity that cannot be denied, and his work as Terry Thorne is yet another masterful turn in his gradually rising and hugely respectable filmography. Although his character, like all of the others, gets very little help from the thin written page, he is able to flesh out his role immensely just by a simple look, or the way he handles his lines. From 1992's "Romper Stomper," to 1997's "L.A. Confidential," to 1999's "The Insider," Russell Crowe does not play his characters as much as he lives and breathes through his personal creation of them. Simply put, he is the most talented actor appearing in films today.

Take Russell Crowe away from "Proof of Life" and what you ultimately have is a complete failure. Whenever he is onscreen, the film is tolerable and occasionally even interesting. Whenever he is absent, the movie threatens to drown in its own mustiness. Either way, director Hackford, whose 1997 thriller "The Devil's Advocate" was far superior, has put a lot of time and money into a motion picture that adds up to very little, and practically screams out for a reedit. "Proof of Life" is right; without Crowe, the only proof of life in this unfortunate misfire would be the physical movements of the camera.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman