May 2021

Ransom (1996)

DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg, Evan Handler, Brawley Nolte


Ron Howard is on a roll, and for his latest venture, coming on the heels of last year’s docudrama Apollo 13, he’s turned to the thriller genre, with this loose remake of the 1956 Glenn Ford film of the same name.  Ransom isn’t flawless, but Howard’s taut direction, a twisty-turny script by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, and a capable cast add up to a slick thriller that provides a mostly solid couple hours of diversion.

Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) is a self-made multi-millionaire with a swanky high-rise New York City apartment, a loving wife (Rene Russo) and son (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick), and his own successful airline company he built from the ground up.  But a stark blow is struck to the Mullens’ privileged life when their young son is snatched from under their noses in broad daylight.  The abduction is orchestrated by crooked police detective Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise) with the help of his girlfriend (Lili Taylor) who worked in the Mullen household and knew their routine, a techie (Evan Handler), and two low-grade rent-a-goons (Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg).  Shaker and cohorts demand a ransom of $2 million, but Tom becomes convinced that his son will be killed when no longer needed, and he takes a risky gamble by turning the tables and instead publicly offering the $2 million as a reward for the kidnappers’ heads, a move that dismays his wife and appalls the FBI agent (Delroy Lindo) working the case.  But in this twisty-turny cat-and-mouse game, will Tom’s gamble pay off?

The primary pleasure of Ransom is following the twists and turns and the dynamics both between the principals Tom and Jimmy, and each of their respective supporting ensembles.  The movie plays coy and does a little misdirection in the opening scenes about the lead villain’s identity, but it doesn’t make it much of a mystery; it’s necessary for us to get to know the motley crew of thieves, a dysfunctional group whom Jimmy, the main brains of the bunch, has a hard time holding together.  And Tom himself is a flawed hero; we learn he’s committed questionable actions, including bribes and payoffs, to protect his company, sins that are now coming back to haunt him (“why me?” he asks of the kidnappers at one point; “you buy your way out of trouble”, is their matter-of-fact response).  There’s also drama and infighting among the kidnappers; Donnie Wahlberg’s Cubby is the dumbest, but also the one with the most qualm about harming a child, while his brother Clark (Liev Schreiber) is uneasy allies with ringleader Jimmy.  As the saying goes, there’s no honor among thieves, and when Tom turns the tables on Jimmy by putting a steep price on his head, Jimmy finds his own henchmen getting out of control.  Along the way, there’s twists and turns, a ransom drop that goes awry, attempted betrayals, and some nice touches; the kidnappers use hard-ware that scrambles their voices and jams trace signals, and during one attempted ransom drop, force Tom to dive fully-clothed into a public swimming pool to retrieve a key, in order to short out any wires and microphones he’s wearing.  Both Tom and Jimmy are smart but not infallibly so, and struggling to think their way through the twists and turns they run into.  There’s a little class issue social commentary, hammered home by Jimmy in a Time Machine metaphor where he compares the rich like Mullen and the underdogs like himself to the Eloi and Morlocks.

One thing hangs over Ransom and dilutes some of the tension; it’s hard to imagine a director with Ron Howard’s wholesome reputation actually daring to kill off a young child (Hitchcock, by contrast, did not always have such compunction).  Ransom might have been a more intense, suspenseful experience with a more ruthless director, where we didn’t feel as secure about an eventual “happy ending”.  The climax is also underwhelming; the last few scenes that lead up to it involve some clever twists, especially in the way the villain very nearly gets away with everything after all, but alas it devolves into a generic and perfunctory hero and villain chase through the street and a few gunshots to finish things off, when one might have hoped for something a little more creative.  But if the destination falls a bit flat, the way there is an enjoyably twisty-turny ride, and at least until the last few minutes, we’re not certain exactly how everything is going to end up.

Mel Gibson leads the way on the acting front with his usual blend of mega wattage charisma and frantic intensity, and injects enough of an edge that he almost invites us to wonder whether Tom really is taking leave of his senses by the time he’s sitting on live television in front of piles of money demanding the kidnappers’ heads on a platter.  Gary Sinise (reunited with Ron Howard from Apollo 13) makes for a worthy foil as a villain who is both smart and ruthless, and not only motivated by money; he resents the privileged upper class safe and secure in their ivory towers and sees himself as striking a blow for the underdog by giving Mullen a harsh dose of reality.  Rene Russo (previously Mel Gibson’s love interest in Lethal Weapon 3) and Delroy Lindo do the best they can with the fairly thankless roles of the wife/mother and the FBI agent handling the case who is appalled by his client’s own seemingly self-sabotaging actions.  Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg, and Evan Handler fill out the kidnapper ensemble, Brawley Nolte is credible as the abducted child, and there are small roles for “you know their face but maybe not their name” character actors like Paul Guilfoyle and Dan Hedaya.

Ransom ends with a bit of a whimper (figuratively at least, despite an obligatory amped-up dose of action) but a strong cast and a twisty-turny script mostly counterbalance its flaws.  Ultimately, it doesn’t quite scale its way to the top of the thriller genre, but it’s one of the stronger entries.  The price of a movie ticket is a reasonable Ransom to pay for an engaging couple of hours.

* * *