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Ransom Delivers Thrills But Still Disappoints
by Gary Johnson

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Ron Howard is quickly emerging as one of the most highly respected American film directors, and his new movie Ransom gives him another impressive credit on his resume. It's a powerful and suspense-filled movie that toys with some genuinely intriguing notions about power and the need to be in control.



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But while the movie certainly delivers on the roller coaster thrills, it doesn't completely carry through on the intriguing issues it raises and emerges as an only halfway satisfying movie.

Ransom begins with several okay but unspectacular scenes that give us a perfect American family: Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), the charismatic and loving father who just happens to be the millionaire owner of an airline; Kate Mullen (Rene Russo), his elegant but down-to-earth wife; and Sean Mullen (Brawley Nolte), the impish son. Their lives are nearly bliss until the son is kidnapped and held for a million dollar ransom. FBI agents roll into the Mullen penthouse apartment and, thus, the standard parrying with kidnappers takes place.

Gary Sinise stars as New York police detective Jimmy Shaker.

(©1996 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

These early scenes dutifully set up the situations and are a bit bland. Ransom plays as an efficient but rather ordinary suspense drama with scenes that have unfortunately become very commonplace Hollywood material. But then Gary Sinise steps forward as a police detective who masterminds the kidnapping, and he jolts the movie to life--as he blows Gibson and everyone else off the screen (except maybe for Lili Taylor as Sinise's girlfriend and accomplice). His role could easily have been envisioned as yet another psycho (possibly with Christopher Walken?) but Sinise's portrayal of police detective Jimmy Shaker makes the character very real--not some Hollywood bad guy dreamed up to allow an actor room for numerous histrionics. Where other actors would be chewing the scenery, Sinise plays his character low key. He's pretty much an ordinary guy, and because we never really find out why this cop went bad, he becomes even scarier and the movie becomes unsettling. But we see his desperation and we see his anger as his plans start to fall apart. His character is so powerful the movie tilts in his direction and nearly becomes a movie about the kidnappers and not the aggrieved victims.

But the movie is really about Tom Mullen. To help give his character some depth and muddy up the All-American aura surrounding his family, the screenplay gives him a black mark: it seems he paid off the machinists union to avoid a strike and keep his airline going--a bribe that he vigorous denied, all the way into a court case, which he won while an innocent man went to prison. And it's this character flaw that Shaker hones in upon. He sees right through Mullen: "You're a payer. You did it once and now you're gonna do it again."

Mel Gibson and Rene Russo as Tom and Kate Mullen.

(©1996 Touchstone Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Tom Mullen's need to stay in control lies at the heart of his character. He is indeed a control-freak who takes control over everything. He's never even told his wife about the bribe, and he doesn't consult her when he's deciding what to do about their son. It comes as no surprise that he refuses to play by the kidnappers' rules and insists they play by his instead.

By now you've seen the TV spots which give away one of the movie's great scenes. You know what I'm talking about: Tom Mullen sits in front of the TV camera with piles of money around him, telling the kidnappers, here's the ransom, but this is as close to it as you'll ever come. And it's a great scene indeed. (Complete with TV newscasters describing his statement afterwards--"It was very heartbreaking"--in the same way that they analyze political speeches!) But it's a great scene because this is when Mullen's obsession with control becomes clear. He could never relinquish control to the kidnappers and let them call the shots. This is a big time business executive who crawled to the top by paying off the union and now he won't pay off the kidnappers to get back his son. The audacity! In this scene the movie finally captures the arrogance of Mullen's character. He plays the kidnapping as a high-powered business deal when his son's life is at stake.

But unfortunately, the moviemakers then pull back and decide to play it safe. Instead of giving us a main character with a tarnished background whose insistence on staying in control threatens to destroy his family (this is potentially some great tragic material), the filmmakers continually key us that Mullen is right. That yes, this is what he has to do. The kidnappers keep talking about killing the boy, as if this is definitely part of their plans from the very start, and this exonerates Mullen's arrogance. And indeed endorses his behavior and leads the movie down a course where Mullen and Shaker must go mano a mano, that most overused of all Hollywood cliches. The movie actually gives us a brilliant, shocking, stunning ending filled with ambiguity and irony (reminiscent of Taxi Driver, while much more plausible), but then the movie lurches forward again, like Fatal Attraction where the movie can't just end; it has to make sure everyone is punished and the punishment must be dealt out by the star. You can practically envision the movie getting test screened with the audience writing on response cards things like "But I want to see Gibson kick some ass!" And for those viewers, the movie delivers. But the midsection of the movie is too damn good for the simplistic ending that it gets.

Ransom is a near miss, a movie that could have been great, with an Academy Award caliber performance from Gary Sinise. It'll probably clean up at the box office and further convince Hollywood that lead characters must always be reliable and that justice must always be dealt out in the final reel, preferably courtesy of the heroes fists. But I wish the filmmakers had set their sights a little higher and fully examined the complex character of Tom Mullen, instead of simply endorsing his control-is-good behavior and giving the audience little more than a thrill ride.

A Touchstone Pictures Release


Tom MullenMel Gibson
Kate MullenRene Russo
Jimmy ShakerGary Sinise
Agent Lonnie HawkinsDelroy Lindo
Maris ConnorLili Taylor
Clark BarnesLiev Schreiber
Miles RobertsEvan Handler
Cubby BarnesDonnie Wahlberg
Sean MullenBrawley Nolte
Jackie BrownDan Hedaya
WallacePaul Guilfoyle
Agent Jack SicklerMichael Gaston
David TorresJose Zuniga
Agent Kimba WelchNancy Ticotin
Directed byRon Howard
Produced byScott Rudin
Brian Grazer
B. Kipling Hagopian
Screenplay byRichard Price
Alexader "Sandy" Ignon
Story byCyril Hume
Richard Maibaum
Executive ProducerTodd Hallowell
Director of PhotographyPiotr Sobocinski
EditorsDan Hanley
Mike Hill
Production DesignerMichael Corenblith
Music byDon Davis
Costume DesignerRita Ryack
Co-ProducerAdam Schroeder
Susan K. Merzbach
Music byJames Horner
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