It starts exactly like a dozen other action-thrillers. Airline entrepreneur Tom (Mel Gibson) and his wife Kate (Rene Russo) lead an affluent, glamorous life. Then, one day, their son is kidnapped, and a chilling e-mail message demands a tidy ransom – or else the kid will be killed.
Ron Howard's Ransom is, on its simplest level, about the agonising decisions that Tom, Kate and a gang of FBI agents led by Delroy Lindo have to make in this tense, life-and-death situation: should they pay up, bluff, set a trap?
Taking matters into his own hands, Tom turns the tables and, on national television, transforms the ransom money into a bounty on the chief kidnapper's head. This criminal mastermind is Jimmy (Gary Sinise), a shady cop.
Until his part in this plot becomes evident, the kidnappers come across as the usual bunch of sub-human stereotypes: unshaven, full of aggro, fond of Heavy Metal music and junk food.
But Sinise and, to a lesser extent, Lili Taylor as his underground lover, bring a depth to this tale that Gibson as the hero certainly cannot. Jimmy is a fascinating character: smart, likable, shifty, violent, and spurred on by a politics of class resentment. (Such a figure reappears, played in a lower key by Willem Dafoe, in The Clearing .)
Ransom is Howard's most impressively well-crafted film since Working Class Man (1986). Within its genre, it is a model of restraint: not as gothic as Seven (1995), not as ostentatious as Color of Night (1994), not as meticulous as Heat (1995) – but always tense and intriguing.
Ultimately, this tantalising film promises more than it delivers. Co-writer Richard Price (Sea of Love, 1989) introduces fascinating elements – such as a moral ambiguity concerning Tom – and then erases them in favour of a clean, generic resolution.
For Price and Howard alike, the moments of depth, contradiction and poignancy in this story are really only devices, touches, fleeting bits of business to tweak the generic formula. Which is a pity, because there is an unusual, daring movie lurking in the shadows of this expert entertainment.
© Adrian Martin November 1996