Desperation earmarks Ransom, too, but it's not the kind bred of a hard life. Instead, it's the interruption of the protagonists' success and happiness that forces them to confront exactly how far they are willing to go to restore order to their lives. Richard Price--who co-wrote the Ransom screenplay and also wrote The Color of Money, Sea of Love, and other films--frequently wrestles with ideas of morality in a complex world, and his influence is apparent from how unclean the hero, Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), really is. Mullen is an airline executive under investigation for bribery when his son is kidnapped and held for a $2-million ransom. He suspects that the investigation and kidnapping are related--that the man serving time in jail for the crime Mullen is accused of is seeking revenge. The ethical ambiguity arises because, as it turns out, Mullen did commit the bribery, and his conscience has gotten the better of him.
Ransom falters by ultimately trivializing the deeper significance of virtually every plot point as they occur, and opts instead for shopworn cliches. Even when Mullen confesses his sins to an FBI agent (Delroy Lindo), there's no kick to it, because the scene--like many others--feels composed for a movie audience, not for the characters themselves. Does there always have to be a softhearted bad guy (you can always spot him; he's destined to be killed) merely to bring the comparison to the remorseless sociopath (Gary Sinise) into sharper relief? An awful lot of raw material is available for putting together a savvy, nail-biting detective thriller, but this movie squanders that opportunity and instead becomes passive and talky. Why does the FBI never do any forensic work, but instead opt just to stand around debating whether the ransom should be paid? The answer is obvious and unjustified: Making the FBI agents the heroes would effectively emasculate Gibson's part, and, dammit, you don't do that to a star!
The decision to craft Ransom as a vehicle built around a movie star rather than as a sensible, tightly composed thriller is directly attributable to the director, Ron Howard. Howard is a product of the Hollywood community--the perfect child star, grown into the consummate studio director. His films are accessible and audience-friendly, and seem less like they were actually filmed than extruded, fully formed, from immense rolls of celluloid. He doesn't make idiosyncratic, offbeat pictures--the film equivalent of dime-novel pulp fiction--but glossy, polished movies. The likes of Backdraft, Far and Away, and Willow have a look of weightiness to them, even though on closer inspection they are undeniably featherlight. (The exception that proves the rule: Apollo 13, a beautifully constructed and very smart entertainment.)
Gibson does a very serviceable job--he allows himself to show strength and emotional compassion--but he's hampered by Howard's insistence on leading viewers around on a short leash as if we couldn't be trusted to think for ourselves. Every time the plot gets rolling, Howard interrupts the flow by using some cheap, counterintuitive device to resolve the scene, even when a much better answer stares him right in the face. Attempts at moral complexity aside, he expects you to know whose side to be on at all times.
The first hour of Ransom is mostly routine melodrama; only later, when Mullen turns the tables on the kidnappers--offering the ransom money as a reward--does the film begin to get really interesting. Finally it seems it will, like Seven and In the Line of Fire, tap into a source for how it can turn the victim's relationship with the criminal into a complete mindfuck. By that late point, however, Howard has already projected his own confusion about what the film's point is and how to get there, and Ransom becomes scattershot. Eventually the desperation you remember isn't the characters' anxiety about their missing child, it's the film's own panic attack concerning whether the audience will walk away satisfied. Ransom commits the worst crime a movie can: It panders.
Ransom. Touchstone Pictures. Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor. Written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, from a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Directed by Ron Howard. Now playing.
Palookaville. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. William Forsythe, Adam Trese, Vincent Gallo, Frances McDormand, Gareth Williams. Written by David Epstein. Directed by Alan Taylor. Opens November 15.