At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Ransom “96”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action Thriller/ Stars: Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Brawley Nolte, Gary Sinise, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg, Evan Handler, Paul Guilfoyle, José Zúñiga, Dan Hedaya, John Ortiz, David Vadim/Runtime: 121 minutes

I think it is safe to say that whenever you say the name Mel Gibson, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see horses panic, mass hysteria to ensue, and a large number of the population to start showing some kind of allergic reaction. In all fairness I get why this all would occur especially when taking into account Gibson’s behavioral history to put it delicately. At the same time though, I would like to put all of that aside for the purpose of this review. That is because despite all the skeletons in the man’s closet that definitely have made people see him as a literal lethal weapon, Gibson is a wonderful actor and one hell of a director who has given some truly amazing work during his time in the world of movie magic. One of his more intriguing if not underrated efforts as an actor though came in the year 1996 when Gibson decided to work together with iconic film helmer Ron Howard on a dark and ominous crime thriller known as Ransom. Yet despite appearing like an odd duo to make such a film, the pair managed to surprise quite a bit as they managed to take this thrilling story of a diabolical kidnapping and transform it into quite the riveting slice of cinematic pie. Yes it may be flawed and slightly overlong, but there is no denying that Ransom not only is able to keep a wonderfully boiling suspenseful center at the heart of its story, but also has one heck of a performance from Gibson in the lead role to keep things on track in that powerful and raw emotional way that only Gibson can.

The plot is as follows: Ransom tells us the story of a man by the name of Tom Mullen. Mr. Mullen, we are able to learn rather quickly, is an airline tycoon who, for all the success he has had in his life, is currently being looked at for allegedly engaging in perhaps less than ethical union practices in order to ensure that his airline is able to stay sky high (pun intended). Yet despite this looming over his head, Tom is still able to be a wonderful husband to his wife Kate and an amazing father to his son Sean thus keeping him on something resembling a moral high ground. However when Sean is snatched right from under them whilst at a science fair in Central Park, our intrepid hero and his wife are thrust face-first into a complete and utterly agonizing panic and when their initial search for Sean doesn’t turn up a single tidbit on where he might be, we soon see that the FBI, in the form of an agent by the name of Hawkins, is dispatched to help them find him. Suffice it to say then that when the kidnappers send word that they wish for him to pay them a hefty amount in order to get his son back safe and sound, our hero is most assuredly ok with paying them whatever they wish. Yet when the crooked gang decides to screw with him when their financial payout is within their grasp, we see that Tom decides to throw them for a loop. A loop that consists of going on television and letting them, and the world, know that he is instead going to use their money instead more as a bounty on their heads. Comprehending that the rules have now changed and his sinister kidnapping scheme is not going as he thought it would, we see that the ring leader of the plot decides, even as his criminal co-horts start losing it due to how much of a spotlight has now been shined on them, to turn up the heat as well by threatening to kill the boy thus triggering a dastardly game of cat and mouse that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Now although he had dipped a toe or 2 into some dark elements with prior films like Backdraft and Parenthood (I know you might think I’m joking with that last one, but watch it and try to tell me otherwise), Ransom was the film that really started to show a more adult and ominous side to the filmography of Ron Howard as this really is a quite harrowing story of losing that which you love the most and how one man decides to turn something quite conventional in these situations into an improvised tool to get vengeance on those who took his son from him. With that being said, there really is nothing novel to this film that makes it work on the level that it does. Rather it is how potent and intense the movie is that helps guide it from beginning to end and which sees Howard shepherding his cast to give terrific performances that aid in the storm of emotion the viewer is being exposed to. Yes his swirl-a-whirl camera effects and utilization of step-printing don’t really work as intended here, Howard is still satisfied with just permitting the cast to go all out in terms of emotional behavior. Yet that turbulent emotional outpouring is a good fit for quite a bit of the cast with a few key outliers (namely that the always lovely to see in a movie Rene Russo feels like she is being restricted to just mere anguish in a role that she gives a good performance in yet feels very one note). Yet even with that in mind, I do feel that Howard does keep the storm of emotion going fairly well whilst also keeping the suspense on an even keel and slowly but surely raising the heat quite admirable. Suffice it to say that it is a fairly well done movie from a filmmaker who doesn’t get nearly as enough credit as he should. Yes he has made some…..interesting choices as of late, but Ron Howard I feel is still a wonderful director when given the right material.

Now I won’t lie to you dear reader: this film does find itself running into a few problems dealing with certain character revelations along its 121 minute runtime especially when it comes to the film’s main villain. Indeed the movie doesn’t really do a good job at making complicating the particular balancing act that he is having to pull and instead just comes right out and shows off his true colors as the chief antagonist. To that end, the individual who portrays this character also chooses to do the same and it shows in their performance which seems to be an equal mix of grimacing at everyone and yelling out commands. Yet not included in that is a showcase of the dual nature of this guy that could have easily transformed him from a straight up thug to a truly chilling nemesis that you think could possibly outsmart our hero at any point during all of this. Yes the script does give us a wonderful bit of aid in the form of showing us why our main baddie is doing this courtesy of him comparing himself and the hero to the class system that is located in the novel The Time Machine, but other than that there really isn’t anything else to really distinguish this guy. It’s also worth pointing out that how things play out in the film also doesn’t help matters as we see that the film reaches a pinnacle way too early on. As a result, the middle of the film is left seemingly adrift to some extent and the ending includes a riveting street pursuit that feels like something the studio requested to keep people engaged rather than the organic resolution to all of this. Suffice it to say the film doesn’t go off the rails so to speak. Rather it just every now and again loses sight of what is important thus resulting in a critical pressure lowering on our hero as well as a rising sense of fear on the part of the villains.

Thankfully, no matter how turbulent or stormy the waters of this narrative become, I can safely say that the lead performance given by Mel Gibson remains strong from beginning to end and it is his quite potent and highly emotional (complete with prerequisite shouting scene) performance that give this movie a riveting anchor for audiences to ride out the storm with. Indeed by being on board with the slightly unethical aspects of this guy as much as the parts of him that are genuinely admirable, Gibson manages to give us a wonderfully flawed hero who, when face to face with his son being kidnapped, decides to go by his gut even when everyone else is all but on their hands and knees begging him to play things by the book. Indeed Howard does a wonderful job at allowing Gibson the necessary space to really uncover some really gut-wrenching responses to horrific news thus giving quite the lively compulsion to this distinct character that propels the narrative in a wonderful way. Indeed it really does make for an injured manner that manages to make all the twists and turns in the road relatable whilst being performed by Gibson in a way that is wonderfully human. Indeed I can’t begin to tell you how this film would’ve been without him in the lead role, but one thing’s for sure: it might not have been this good.

All in all and at the end of the day even in the face of a resolution that does to some degree feel a bit unresolved in certain aspects, the slice of cinematic pie that is Ransom is still a movie that does offer audiences quite dependably well-made and riveting cinematic entertainment due to both some fairly well-done twists and curves in the road as well as a very comprehensible ominous vibe entrenched in every aspect of this scheme which I am also quite thankfully never segways over into truly horrific and/or sadistic territory. To be sure, it is quite potent and strong work from film helmer Ron Howard as this showcased at the time a continue interest in making movies that were perhaps a bit darker than those he had made previously. Indeed here Howard does a wonderful job at making sure the slightly aloof narrative’s requests are honored by having his main character, played beautifully by Mel Gibson, is constantly in a state of high alert, and that the slight ick factor of the plot is showcased as rivetingly as the suspense that is a key component of it and the immensely talented cast, very much in the same vein as the audience, is always on the edge of their seats trying to figure out just what exactly is going to happen next. On a scale of 1-5 I give Ransom “96” a solid 3.5 out of 5.