Tuesday 16 August 2016

Movie Review: Ransom (1996)

A child kidnapping thriller, Ransom enjoys excellent production values, a committed Mel Gibson performance and a determination to accentuate the cerebral aspects of crime gamesmanship.

Tom Mullen (Gibson) is a successful businessman, the head of a major airline that he created from humble beginnings. He lives in a swanky Manhattan condominium overlooking Central Park with his wife Kate (Rene Russo) and young son Sean (Brawley Nolte). However, there is a shadow hanging over Tom's business dealings involving unproven accusations of illegal payments to avoid a union strike. The Mullens' world is plunged into a nightmare when Sean is abducted during an outdoor public event. Tom and Kate soon receive a ransom demand for $2 million, and FBI Agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo) takes charge of the investigation.

The kidnap mastermind is New York Police Detective Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), who is disgusted with Tom's seemingly shady business ethics. Jimmy's crew consists of girlfriend Maris (Lili Taylor), tech expert Miles (Evan Handler), and brothers Clark and Cubby (Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg). Sean is handcuffed to a bed and blindfolded while Jimmy makes his demands, with Tom and Kate wondering how much they can trust Lonnie's advice. When an arranged money drop goes bad, Sean's life is placed in grave danger, and Tom decides that a fundamental change in negotiating tactics is needed.

Directed by Ron Howard, Ransom is an intelligent thriller which relies on plot and characters and resists most impulses to engage in mindless action. The film remains grounded in relative foundations of reality, and the kidnapping ordeal enjoys a trio of excellent, out of the box twists. The drama is well paced, the two hours of running time efficiently used to recount a story rich in detail and resolve.

The script by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon gets the fundamentals right by investing in both sides of the kidnapping. While Tom and Kate's trauma does get the majority of attention, a significant amount of time is spent with Jimmy and his gang, humanizing the criminals and building to an effective climax where the need for complex decisions will come to the fore at the individual level.

The central twist in the negotiations, a ploy too clever to reveal, sets the film off in a new direction and radically changes the dynamic between Jimmy, Tom and Kate. It's an idea both foolish and audacious, and sets the film apart from most other kidnap thrillers. Of course all daring initiatives can suffer from the law of unintended consequences, and Ransom rides one wild notion straight into another, victim and perpetrator locking horns and engaging in a new battle of wits within an unexpected context.

Howard infuses the film with his usual commitment to quality, and Ransom enjoys lush cinematography courtesy of Piotr SobociƄsk, attractive locations and the occasional on-the-street burst of dynamism. Not unexpectedly, there are hints of big budget over orchestration in some scenes, Howard always choosing multiple helicopters and hordes of extras when more intriguing and more modest options were perhaps available.

Mel Gibson delivers a surprisingly effective performance. He tones down both his boyish charm and his manic intensity, and settles into the relatively steady tone of a concerned father who nevertheless will not subdue his entrepreneurial inclination to seek a different and better solution. Gary Sinise offers a perfect foil as the smart and determined police detective moonlighting as a criminal, although more background on what fueled Jimmy Shaker's motivation would have been welcome. The rest of the cast is brimming with talent and provides solid support.

Canny and resourceful, Ransom delivers a satisfying pay off.

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