By Leah Rozen
December 11, 2000 12:00 PM

Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe, David Morse

They may never have Paris, but Crowe’s and Ryan’s characters in Proof of Life will always have Tccala. That’s the fictional Latin American country where Crowe, making like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942), must do the right thing and outsmart corrupt officials and guerrilla fighters to help Ingrid Bergman—oops, I mean Ryan—free her admirable husband (Morse) from kidnappers. Unlike Casablanca, Proof’ isn’t one for the ages, but it is a well-constructed, ably acted effort that justifies working your way through a tubful of popcorn on a Saturday night.

Proof is at heart an old-fashioned movie with au courant political references but minus the flag-waving. Ryan plays Alice Bowman, whose spouse, Peter, is an American engineer who has been relocated to Tecala by a big American oil company to build a dam. When Peter is kidnapped by leftist guerrillas, enter Terry Thorne (Crowe), a swaggering but sensitive Australian who travels the globe negotiating the release of abductees on behalf of insurance companies. But Peter’s company is taken over by another corporation, which has no intention of paying for Terry’s pricey services. Terry, however, impressed by Alice’s passion and lack of guile, signs on anyway, doing his best to free Peter and falling for Alice in the process.

As Alice and Terry try to negotiate with the elusive kidnappers, director Taylor Hackford (Devil’s Advocate) skillfully intercuts scenes of their growing relationship with Peter’s long months of harsh imprisonment in the mountains. Without oversimplifying the complicated politics of the region, Tony Gilroy’s script keeps the focus where it belongs: on the romantic triangle.

Crowe, forgoing his Gladiator sword, still makes for a sharp-edged, complex hero, suggesting as much with a look as with a line of dialogue. He and current real-life love Ryan display palpable onscreen chemistry, but her performance otherwise lacks dramatic force. Morse (The Green Mile) is his usual reliable self, and there is commendable work by Pamela Reed as Alice’s bossy sister-in-law and David Caruso—welcome back—as one of Terry’s pals. (R)

Bottom Line: Proof positive