The numbers finally don't add up on "Ransom." A persuasive thriller for most of its length, it stumbles in its attempt to become an upscale version of "Death Wish" and other vigilante dramas and ends up derailing with a soft thud.
The story of the lengths a distraught father, played by Mel Gibson, will go to get his kidnapped son safely home, "Ransom" is a departure for director Ron Howard. "Apollo 13" notwithstanding, Howard is known for softer fare, but he turns out to be reasonably effective at building criminal tension, hooking an audience and reeling it in.
Having a story that is a universal nightmare hasn't hurt either. Written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon and based on a little-seen 1956 film starring Glenn Ford, "Ransom's" "pay up, we've got your child" plot is craftily put together with an eye toward terrorizing concerned parents nationwide.
At the center of things is Tom Mullen (Gibson), head of Endeavor Airlines, a company he founded and nursed to its current strong position servicing 32 countries. Surrounded by the trappings of success (Manhattan penthouse, warm friendship with the mayor, Rene Russo's beautiful Kate for a wife), Tom is feisty enough to cause 10-year-old Sean (Brawley Nolte, Nick's son) to comment: "It seems like someone's always mad at you."
Crosscut with an elegant party introducing Tom and his family are shots of a meanly furnished room, complete with handcuffs chained to the bed, the chamber of horrors being prepared for Sean. Soon enough he is snatched and an electronically altered voice on the telephone demands $2 million from Tom in the de rigueur unmarked bills.
While there is a generic quality to Howard's direction, the initial stages of "Ransom" get the job done nicely. The script carefully parcels out its twists and surprises, virtuoso cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (who shot "Red" for Krzysztof Kieslowski) makes things visually interesting, and the director, thankfully not looking to make a companion piece to "Seven," keeps the proceedings restrained.
Once again moving back and forth between criminals and victims, "Ransom" shows us the kidnapping's aftermath from both points of view. The five-person gang, rife with the kind of dissension that no movie evildoers can avoid, is well-defined, with fine actors like Lili Taylor and Liev Schreiber in the lawbreaking roles.
Back at the Mullen household, experienced FBI agent Lonnie Hawkins (yet another excellent performance by Delroy Lindo) has all he can do to keep the level of parental hysteria from going off the charts. As crises arise and nightmare piles on nightmare, Tom and Kate get increasingly frantic, going over the edge into emotional chaos as they try to decide what tactic will work best to bring their son back alive.
At a certain point, more because that's what it says in the script than anything else, Tom opts to take matters into his own hands, a decision that frankly hurts the film. For one thing, the decision plays as stupid and implausible in its attempt to make a virtue out of a kind of stubborn willfulness that would be more appropriate, and equally unappealing, in a tiresome 2-year-old.
Just as troublesome is Gibson's fitness for the kind of vigilante role that the menacing Charles Bronson, not for nothing called "Il Brutto" by the Italians, was effective in. Though he has the air of the rascal about him and was certainly formidable in the "Mad Max" movies, Gibson at this point in his career has a softer persona. He's better suited to being the painfully distraught parent than the fatuous jerk "Ransom" unconvincingly insists is acting like the perfect hero.
* MPAA rating: R, for graphic bloody violence and strong language. Times guidelines: bloody gunplay and tension.
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Mel Gibson: Tom Mullen
Rene Russo: Kate Mullen
Brawley Nolte: Sean Mullen
Gary Sinise: Jimmy Shaker
Delroy Lindo: Agent Lonnie Hawkins
Lili Taylor: Maris Connor
Liev Schreiber: Clark Barnes
A Brian Grazer/Scott Rudin production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Ron Howard. Producers Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer, B. Kipling Hagopian. Executive producer Todd Hallowell. Screenplay Richard Price and Alexander Ignon. Story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski. Editors Dan Hanley, Mike Hill. Costumes Rita Ryack. Music James Horner. Production design Michael Corenblith. Art director John Kasarda. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
* In general release throughout Southern California.