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Refuse to Pay This 'Ransom'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 08, 1996

In a culture where Baby Boomers have grown up to become sensitive parents (and in a country that has been familiar with kidnappers since the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby), the makers of "Ransom" have isolated a hot-button subject. Naturally, they exploit things to the maximum -- and way beyond.

The movie, in which parents Mel Gibson and Rene Russo bargain with kidnappers for the life of their child, pulls out all the stops. In fact, director Ron Howard and his collaborators invent stops that shouldn’t even be there. There are more climaxes in here than in a Swedish blue movie. This is not to say you won’t be thrilled, charged up and put through the ringer at times, but your intelligence will need to be shoved under your seat like warm, flat soda.

Gibson plays Tom Mullen, the charismatic founder of a lucrative airline company. Living affluently in Manhattan with his devoted wife, Kate (Russo), and young son, Sean (Brawley Nolte -- yep, son of Nick), he’s just waiting to be exploited.

In the movie’s most harrowing scene, the kidnappers (including Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg) stalk Sean at a children’s science fair in Central Park. The kid’s busily operating a gizmo that’s levitated by helium balloons. His mother and father, who are involved with the festivities, are distracted. It’s a fine day in America. Then suddenly, Sean is no longer standing where he used to be.

Mullen receives the kidnappers’ demands by electronic mail (complete with pictures of his handcuffed, gagged son): $2 million in unmarked bills or, well, the Nolte family dynasty comes to an end. He contacts the FBI, and working with personable Agent Hawkins (Delroy Lindo), tries to entrap the gangsters. But the gang, led by the sinister Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), is on to this kind of strategy.

While the negotiations and setbacks take place, we learn that Mullen was involved in some shady business dealings. Could his dark past have something to do with all this?

"Ransom," which appropriates elements from "The Silence of the Lambs" and "In the Line of Fire," doesn’t hold a candle to either movie. It approximates those movies’ suspense tactics, but doesn’t have their solid narrative foundations. For instance, given all the electronic equipment these villains are using (not to mention splitting the take five ways), it seems these guys will have to launch another kidnapping just to make ends meet. And just how does Mullen -- even with his supposed high-up connections -- get a free spot (with 20 minutes’ notice) on a television station to issue a macho challenge to the kidnappers?

Director Howard, who started his household life as Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show," has a crowd-pleasing, but woefully pat approach to storytelling. Life in his movies (including "Backdraft," "The Paper" and "Apollo 13") is a seamless, simplistic American pantomime. His characters’ problems, dreams and desires are easily identifiable, like open picture books. Even the "gray areas" he inserts into their personalities -- where, for instance, we see the human side of a villain, or the bad side of the hero -- are head-clubbingly formulaic. "Ransom," which was written by Richard Price (who alternates between novels and Hollywood hackery) and Alexander Ignon, continues this not-so-fine tradition: It entertains us emptily while it holds our brains for ransom.

RANSOM (R) — Contains profanity, emotionally excruciating material and gun violence.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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