Ransom (1996) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for graphic, bloody violence and strong language
Running time: 121 min.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinise, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Brawley Nolte, Donnie Wahlberg, Evan Handler, Paul Guilfoyle
Cameo: Dan Hedaya, A.J. Benza, Richard Price
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Richard Price, Alexander Ignon

Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon 2 & 3) stars as multimillionaire Tom Mullen, who built his airline fortune from the ground up.  Despite allegations that he paid off people in order to stay in his business, he lives a pretty good life, with attractive wife Kate (Russo, Get Shorty) and loving nine-year-old son Sean (Nolte).  It's all turned upside down when an elite crew of kidnappers nabs young Sean, holing him for the ransom of $2 million.  Tom immediately secures the FBI on his side, but they only end up complicating the exchange, and now both sides, Mullen and kidnappers are at wit's end.  When Tom becomes convinced that his boy will be killed even if he pays, he decides on a new tactic -- pay the ransom money to any individuals in the general public who can get the person(s) responsible, dead or alive.

When hearing about the main plot, you might find it a bit hard to believe.  With the quality actors at the core, a proven director behind the camera (Howard, Apollo 13), and one of the best screenwriters of modern crime dramas (Price, Clockers) adding the flourishes, what might seem ludicrous becomes one of the best thrillers of the year.  It's a remake of a little-known Glenn Ford flick from 1956, but with lots of modern zest, including being the darkest, bloodiest and least crowd-pleasing film in Ron Howard's relatively optimistic-minded career in films.

Mel Gibson plays this sort of anguished role well, and he's perfectly suited as the father with a little bit of crackpot in him.  Russo, who already has displayed good screen chemistry with Gibson in the Lethal Weapon films, gives one of her best performances as the depressed mother and often outraged wife, who doesn't know whether to stick by the man who has never done her wrong in the past or take a huge risk on losing their only child through Tom's very chancy gambit.  As fine as these performances are, I am most impressed by the complexity given the FBI agent character played by an excellent Delroy Lindo (Mr. Jones, The Hard Way).  His motivation and stake in the outcome is just as fascinating as anyone else's, providing a good common sense balance to Tom's emotional impulses.

Intrigue is established early and tension never lets up all the way until the very final shot. It's only in the final scene that the story starts to bite off more than it can chew in a bloody showdown, but by this point, the tension has ratcheted up to the level where anythingless might seem anticlimactic.  Interestingly, the screenplay by Price and Ignon gives equal time to the crooks, who exhibit varying states of dedication to the scheme, as it does to the family and their law enforcement confidants.  A complex series of elements are in play on both sides, with no one ever quite sure what they're doing is going to work in the end.

Ransom is a good showcase of how a B-movie premise can ascend into A-movie quality if enough talent is brought together to enrich the characterizations and plotline enough to engage the audience.  Twists and turns keep the story constantly evolving, while the level of unease grows ever stronger with each passing scene.  Although it's hard to sympathize with a man who would risk his son's life for a seemingly no-win proposition, with a couple of key moments of gut-wrenching remorse, we're completely on his side, even when he's completely reckless. One wonders how he'd live with the guilt if his son were to be killed at any point after the gauntlet has been thrown down. 

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo