Opie Plays Hardball

Thrillers that involve a threat to the nuclear family almost always have a reactionary subtext. Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Cape Fear leap to mind. When a director of Ron Howard's depth makes a film like Ransom, about a rich guy trying to best the man who's kidnapped his son, one might well expect the same sort of simple-minded cutthroat piety, the same cheap, and usually lucrative, button pushing.

I don't mean that as an insult to Howard. The Paper and Apollo 13 showed he can be a fine and even skillful showman. But atavism seems to channel his work in predictable directions. It must be incredibly tiresome as an adult to be dogged by the specters of Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham, but they are the best shorthand to describe Howard's usual sensibility as an artist. (Would we say the same of all directors if we knew their faces?)

With naive, gee-whiz material -- stories about astronauts or fast-talking journalists -- Howard is adept. When he tries for epic grandeur (Far and Away) or rueful domestic comedy-drama (Parenthood) or John Ford-style manliness (the execrable Backdraft), he comes off shallowly precocious. A family-under-siege movie seems equally out of his range -- likely to induce either indifference or forced hysteria in him.

That's what makes Ransom such a jolt. This bold melodrama pushes buttons all right, and very effectively, but it's not the same old thing. Working from an unusually lively script (by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, from a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum) with snappy, playable roles, Howard has managed to keep his balance and deliver a really juicy, invigorating time to his audience. By not trying to sanitize the machismo and bourgeois defensiveness -- by not letting them seem unintentional or covert --Howard allows us to accept them.

Mel Gibson is an airline tycoon, a hardballer who has recently wiggled out from under a labor scandal that sent a union boss (Dan Hedaya, superb in a one-scene role) to prison. He lives with his wife (Rene Russo) and son in a palatial New York penthouse. The kid is snatched from a science fair, and a few hours later the well-planned ransom demands arrive. The feds are called in and bungle the first attempt at a payoff. When Gibson becomes convinced he has no hope of getting the kid back alive if he pays, he goes on TV to offer the ransom money as a reward for bringing in the kidnappers, dead or alive. The formidable head kidnapper is rattled but not beaten, and the battle of wits between the two men begins in earnest.

It leads eventually, inevitably, to a violent confrontation between them in the film's final moments, which lapse into routine cops-and-robbers stuff. Until then, Ransom is an impressive thriller.

Its originality is all thematic. I loved this movie because it didn't apologize for its smugly rich hero who uses his money as a weapon, and who has been able to live with somebody else going to jail for a crime in which he participated. Howard and the screenwriters don't try to justify their hero; his culpability is made the chief source of the drama. The head fed (Delroy Lindo) tells Gibson he'll do best if he thinks of both himself and the kidnapper as businessmen; but he doesn't know who he's talking to -- he doesn't imagine that Gibson naturally will start playing ruthless negotiator with his son's life at stake.

The brilliance of Gibson's performance, maybe the best he's ever given, is in the wild, terrified buzz he gets from this ultimate business maneuver. Being able to lock horns with a heartless criminal and not feel overmatched teaches his character something shocking about himself (his wife learns a few things too). When he and the kidnapper get into a screaming argument over the phone, it stops being about the kid for a few seconds and turns into a simple fight for dominance -- and this is the first fresh insight the family-in-peril genre has offered us in a very long time.

Most films involving high-tech criminal plots have comic-book villains, but Howard and the writers make this gang both believable and three-dimensional as human beings. The head kidnapper is given a terrific monologue about the movie The Time Machine that makes the film's theme of class separation seem overt. To discuss the performances of the actors playing the heavies would spoil certain of the film's surprises; suffice it to say that the depth and humanity the kidnappers are given serves to make them more frightening, not less.

Written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon; directed by Ron Howard; with Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Brawley Nolte, and Dan Hedaya.


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