I judge thrillers strictly on the twitch factor. That is, if I'm sitting there and suddenly someone is going "ULP!" "OOF!" and "AGH!" and punching the air, and annoying everybody around him, and that person is me, the movie deserves a friendly reception.
What those spasms signify, of course, is that the story has gotten beyond the rational brain and connected with the subconscious. It has taken over, like the critter inside John Hurt's belly in "Alien." It's running the show.
On that scale, then, "Ransom" gets three "Ulps," a couple of "Oofs" but only one "Agh!" Slick, dark and gritty, it takes its energy from a powerful portrayal of a tough, driven bad boy who plays the game full out to the end. (I do not name the actor out of respect for one of the movie's better, if early-yielded, twists.) Ron Howard has understood a key to thriller construction; it's the villain that drives the piece, not the much less interesting force of virtue.
That side is represented by Mel Gibson, a self-made airline millionaire whose child has been snatched and a $2 million ransom demanded.
Gibson works hard, maybe too hard, at showing the more vulnerable sides of his personality. He weeps, he cringes, he clinches, he bellows to heaven. His voice cracks dramatically. More amazingly, he neglects to genuflect before the Edwin Hopper painting hanging on his penthouse wall. Now that's distraught! But somehow, he's not nearly as interesting as the bad guy, even when the film goes to some length to give him an edgy, not entirely honorable, personality.
The kidnappers, though initially presented as tattooed scum straight out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, turn out to be technologically sophisticated, particularly in their understanding of law enforcement methodology. They're very hard to track, capable of counter-jamming phone and computer monitoring and, with a few setbacks, seem fully up to the challenge. The film's level of cleverness is quite high, particularly a neat caper in which the crooks manage to talk Gibson through shedding both physical and electronic surveillance the FBI has planted as he comes their way with the two mil.
The wrinkle here is that after a time -- a botched money exchange, a lot of waiting in posh apartments and so forth -- Gibson's Tom Mullen comes to the conclusion that the kidnappers are just trying to extort the money out of him and have no plan at all to return the child. Thus, against the advice of both the FBI (represented by Delroy Lindo, as the shaven-headed, goateed, turtleneck-wearing, be-bopin', hipster kind of FBI agent, by the way) and his wife (Renee Russo, without much to do) he refuses to pay the ransom and instead converts the $2 million to $4 million -- in bounty.
This film is a remake of a '56 model, where rectitudinous Glenn Ford played the dad, and his refusal to pay up was viewed as unambiguously courageous. Howard is smart enough to know that today, such a move would become the lead story on "Entertainment Tonight" and the 6 o'clock news, and he goes to great lengths to set the conflict in a modern media environment as well as an emotional context. For in the '50s, of course, the father's stern decision and his place in society and in the hierarchy of family were unchallenged. Now that's all changed, and so Tom becomes a lightning rod of rage and contempt as he struggles with this problem.
Howard directs for speed and force. The movie moves so quickly it yanks you by too many niggling doubts and the action scenes -- the botched money delivery, a street shootout and the final confrontation between forces of good and evil on swank Madison Avenue -- are so good that you wonder why Opie hasn't shown this much vicious pizazz before.
Now and then it falters grotesquely: For example, it's a mistake to turn the villain into a class warrior, out to off the rich and full of brittle snideness about lunch at 21, a box at the Met and so forth. Uninteresting and trite. He's also given a long soliloquy in which he resurrects the Eloi and the Morlocks from George Pal's movie version of "H.G. Wells' The Time Machine," which sounds more like screenwriter Richard Price's reaction to a night's worth of writer's block than anything this character would ever think to say.
But "Ransom" is all twitch and no thought; you walk out exhausted and have to hit the BRAIN-ON switch several times before you're up and running at the cognitive level again.
Starring Mel Gibson, Rene Russo and Gary Sinise
Directed by Ron Howard
Released by Touchstone
Rated R (violence, profanity)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 11/08/96