A child in jeopardy, a millionaire blackmailed and a family in crisis; all standard fodder for the high stakes thriller, opened full throttle in Ron Howard’s Ransom (1996). This is a clever and stylish movie, one that establishes its frenzied pace roughly ten minutes into the story and then never lets up. Yet, Richard Price and Alexander Ignom’s screenplay had an interesting gestation. The project began as an hour long 1954 television episode ‘Fearful Decision’ effectively remade for TV again in 1955.
On the strength of both small screen versions, MGM bought the rights and Richard Maibaum and Cyril Hume rewrote it, expanding the premise as a modestly budgeted, well received B-noir released in 1956. From here, the property was retired – thankfully. Personally, I think three versions in one decade is overkill. Perhaps it even holds the record for most remakes in a limited period of time.
But in 1996 director Ron Howard found a new reason to resurrect the story. It makes sense. Unseen for nearly forty years, the adage ‘everything old is new again’ held true. And recently there had been a handful of old noir thrillers reinvented for the big screen, including Peter Hyam’s Narrow Margin (1990) and Martin Scosese’s Cape Fear (1991), proving that old B-movies could return to the screen as A-list crowd pleasers with bigger budgets and even bigger stars at the helm.
This time, the story concerns billionaire airline owner Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), a congenial guy with a small devoted group of employees whom Tom considers his extended family. Tom lives in a very fashionable Park Ave. penthouse with his wife, Kate (Rene Russo) and their young son, Sean (Brawley Nolte). After throwing a lavish affair at his home to inaugurate a new marketing plan for his airline, Kate and Tom take Sean to the reservoir in Central Park to attend his grade school’s science fair. But the Mullens have become complacent in their familiarity among friends and colleagues. Their attentions are diverted away from Sean, thus affording a motley crew of kidnappers the opportunity to take him hostage for a ransom.
Blindfolded and bound inside a rundown basement apartment owned by the Mullen’s former caterer, Maris Conner (Lily Taylor), along with her cohorts, brothers Clark (Live Schreiber) and Cubby Barnes (Donnie Walberg) and Miles Roberts (Evan Handler), Sean is forced to wait out the ordeal while the kidnappers barter. Miles contacts Tom via a live computer feed, showing Sean tied up. The demand is $2 million dollars in exchange for Sean’s safe return. Tom calls the FBI, who set up a command post in his living room.
Meanwhile, NYPD detective Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise) is arresting a small time hood for a convenience store robbery when he spies Cubby nervously shoplifting some Frankenberry cereal. Following Cubby back to the basement apartment, Shaker confronts him at gunpoint for his carelessness; revealing that he is the real mastermind behind Sean’s kidnapping. Shaker’s plan is to kill Sean once the ransom has been paid. But Cubby confides in Clark that he will not murder an innocent or let Shaker finish the job after they have their money.
As per the FBI’s instructions and the kidnapper’s demands, Tom agrees to deliver the ransom to an abandoned shipyard late at night. But the plan goes awry when Cubby nervously orders Tom to hand over his satchel without first receiving some assurances that Sean is safe. The FBI ambush the exchange, dive bombing from a helicopter. Cubby scrambles to a nearby getaway van and Clark fires at the helicopter pilot. An FBI sniper retaliates and Cubby is shot dead before Tom can pump him for clues.
Outraged and feeling cockier than ever, Shaker calls Tom back to set up another ransom drop. But Tom has had enough. He drives to a local TV station instead, offering the $2 million on a live morning talk show as a price on the kidnapper’s heads for Sean’s safe return. “God help you,” Tom directly addresses his son’s anonymous captors, “For nobody else will.”
Believing that Tom’s plan is misguided, Kate is lured by Shaker to an isolated area where he attacks her, then tells her that Sean will surely die unless the ransom is paid. Tom responds by upping his ‘reward’ to $4 million. Shaker cannot see his way beyond more threats. He telephones the Mullen’s penthouse, allowing Tom and Kate to hear Sean’s voice briefly before firing single gunshot into the air, then disconnecting the call – leaving Tom and Kate to ponder in ambiguous anguish whether Sean is still alive.
In the meantime, Shaker has already formulated a new plan, to kill Clark and Miles and claim the reward money for himself and Maris. It’s all so perfect. Sean has been blindfolded this whole time. He has never seen his kidnappers. But Shaker’s set up of Clark and Miles goes awry. Still he manages to assassinate them both in short order before Maris – who has had a miraculous change of heart – wounds Shaker in his leg. In retaliation, he murders his lover before bursting into the apartment to pretend his rescue. The SWAT team arrives, storms the apartment and locates the pair.
A grateful Tom arrives at the hospital to thank Shaker for the return of his son. Shaker regales Tom and investigating FBI agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo) with a deliciously clever web of lies. Kate identifies Maris’ body as the girl from the catered party. Now, the specifics of ‘how’ and ‘why’ the Mullens should have become targets of extortion are neatly tied up. As far as the FBI is concerned, the case is closed.
A few days later Shaker, still limping from his gunshot wound, arrives at Tom’s penthouse to collect his reward money. Tom offers to introduce Shaker to Sean, but as the boy comes around the corner he is suddenly terrorized, clearly recognizing Shaker’s voice as one of the kidnappers. Sean wets himself from fear. Although Tom sees this, Shaker does not. But Tom is now convinced that Shaker is the real kidnapper. He gives Shaker a fake cheque, hoping to quickly escort him from the family’s home. But Shaker is no fool. He draws his weapon on Tom, forcing him to go to the bank to wire the full amount of the ransom money into his personal account. He further plans for Tom to call ahead to the airport for one of his chartered craft to be standing by so that he and Tom can make their speedy getaway. But Tom is one step ahead of the game. He calls Hawkins with a cryptic message instead.
Police converge on Tom and Shaker outside the bank. Realizing that Tom has set him up, Shaker opens fire on the officers. Tom and Shaker wrestle for his gun, with Tom hurling Shaker through the plate glass window of a nearby store. Hawkins arrives on the scene, ordering Tom to drop his weapon. But Shaker draws a back-up revolver concealed in his ankle holster, forcing Tom and Hawkins to unload their weapons. The scene ends with Hawkins escorting Tom away from the scene of the crime.
Ransom is big, bold, bloody entertainment, but in a very nourishing way. Its carnage is gruesome but definitely in service of the story. And the Price/Ignom screenplay doesn’t really rely on it for thrills, but instead plays up the nobility of a desperate father pushed to the edge of an impossible situation where only one solution will satisfy. Mel Gibson’s performance is grand gesturing in the best theatrical tradition; too over the top as he hollers “Give me back my son!” over the telephone, then narrowly averts having a complete meltdown after hearing Shaker’s gun being fired – presumably at Sean – on the other end of the line.
There really isn’t a whole lot of romantic chemistry between Gibson and Russo, but its absence doesn’t harm or even impact the story. Arguably, the best associations within the film are those between men; the distraught Tom and comforting Hawkins; cold-blooded Clark and his more sympathetic brother Cubby (who lacks the stomach to become a real career criminal). Even the father/son relationship between Tom and Sean gets more empathetic playtime, despite the fact that they are separated by fate for most of the film’s runtime.
By comparison, the interactions between men and women are genuinely flawed. Kate’s lack of faith in Tom’s decision to offer the ransom/reward as a price on the kidnappers speaks volumes about the sort of husband/wife relationship they had before their son was taken away. In fact, even in the brief moments of serenity presented at the start of our story Tom and Kate are rarely seen together – more interested in entertaining their guests separately than as a couple. At the Central Park science fair they are likewise working the same event from opposite sides of the podium.
Arguably, the best performance in the film, that is to say the most naturalistic, belongs to Brawley Nolte (yes, Nick Nolte’s son). As the blindfolded victim he is both believably brave yet strangely sympathetic. But as the rescued child whose nightmares follow him home, Nolte’s silent reactions – neurotic shakes, glassy-eyed fear – are positively brilliant.
Ron Howard knows how to balance solid character development with gut-wrenching/heart pounding action – no small feat. He also finds interesting ways to make relatively mundane situations sublimely thrilling. Take the kidnapping sequence in Central Park; beautifully understated, as Tom and Kate gradually realize Sean is nowhere to be found. As their panic exponentially mounts cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski’s camera gains momentum. It reels back and forth, panning the crowd before suddenly focusing on a single static shot – Sean’s ballooner science project calmly floating upward to the jagged gable rooftop of a nearby apartment. The sound of the gables puncturing those helium filled sacks, and thus causing Sean’s science project to come crashing to earth, exemplify and heighten the immediate helplessness and hopelessness Tom and Kate are feeling.
In the final analysis, Ransom is a solid thriller. I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around TV’s Opie/Ritchie Cunningham parlaying a second career in Hollywood. Still, there is no denying Ron Howard his place in the top tier of contemporary film makers. Without question, his greatest talents lay behind the camera. He’s proven this time and again with a string of good, solid movies and Ransom is no exception. It’s taut and fast moving, expertly staged with nail-biting sequences that continue to resonate with audiences.
Now for the really good news: Ransom on Blu-ray has never looked better. It’s so nice to finally see Disney taking an active interest in their back catalogue of Touchstone movies. Ransom has always been given short shrift on DVD with non-anamorphic transfers. Well, for its 15th Anniversary on Blu-ray Ransom not only gets anamorphic but a full 1080p rescan and the results fall somewhere between ‘impressive’ and ‘wow!’ Colours pop. Fine details abound. Contrast levels are bang on. I’m not entirely sure about the grain structure. The B&W sequence that opens the film has a grainy quality – as it should – but afterward film grain tends to disappear almost entirely for a very smooth visual presentation. I won’t go so far as to say that undue DNR has been applied to create those awful waxen images on Predator or Patton but there’s definitely been some manipulation here. It doesn’t really bother me too much, however and most unaware that such a thing as film grain even exists will likely not to miss its absence. Overall, good stuff.
The audio gets a nice reboot too; aggressive in 5.1 DTS and with good spatial spread. Dialogue sounds natural with solid integration of score and effects. Extras include an audio commentary by Ron Howard and ‘making of’ featurette that I faintly recall being a part of the DVD reissue from some years back. We also get another featurette – ‘what would you do’ – that tests one’s emergency preparedness skills. Stills and trailers round out the extras. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)