Russell Crowe's ascendance to the A-list was greeted with a brash, resonant fanfare as Gladiator trampled the box office and sent critics into raptures. So it's justifiable that Crowe's second movie as one of the world's biggest stars, Proof Of Life, should be scrutinised so closely. We already know he can act (watch The Insider), but has he maintained that impressively commanding on-screen presence?
Well, thankfully, Crowe is utterly convincing as ex-SAS hostage negotiator Terry Thorne, treating every crisis with calm detachment, barely breaking into a sweat when Peter Bowman's (David Morse) captors scream threats down the phone. Just as you could believe that men would willingly fight for Maximus, so Thorne is a man with who you'd happily entrust your loved ones' lives.
Trouble is, Crowe's charisma has been taken for granted by director Taylor Hackford (who he? The director of An Officer And A Gentleman and, er, Devil's Advocate). First, it's assumed that we'd swallow a blossoming romance between Thorne and the captive's wife, Alice (Meg Ryan). Yet, despite the fact that Meg `n' Russ got it together off-screen, this clumsy stab at a love triangle is a total dramatic mistake. The roots of the relationship are never made clear - Thorne's sleazy mate (a surprisingly good David Caruso) accuses him of falling in love halfway through the plot, and there you have it: instant affair.
But, even worse, how can anyone sympathise with this development? While Alice's faithful husband is going through hell, she's considering getting it on with his rescuer! And though most of their love scenes were hacked when the producers realised this problem, there's enough of a relationship remaining to leave a sour taste.
Yet this isn't enough to ruin Proof Of Life. While it also suffers from a slightly rushed pace which leaps too frequently between the scenes of captivity and the wife/negotiator sequences, and while Ryan's watery-eyed theatrics are both misconceived and misplaced, it finds its salvation in an excellent turn from David Morse. Hollywood's most reliable supporting actor is given the meatiest material, as his character becomes thinner, grubbier, beardier, angrier and ever more desperate.
Indeed, Morse's performance makes such compelling viewing that you'll long for his return to the screen every time the action flits back to the other main players. So, while Crowe fans won't be disappointed, chances are they'll leave singing the praises of a previously overlooked supporting thesp rather than their favourite star...
A solid, workmanlike drama which works best when treating you to gorgeous shots of mountainscapes and involving you in the traumas of captivity. Shame, though, about Meg Ryan's wonky performance and the ham-fisted attempts to stuff in some romance.