Director: Ron Howard. Cast: Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, René Russo, Brawley Nolte, Delroy Lindo, Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, Donnie Wahlberg, Paul Guilfoyle. Screenplay: Richard Price and Alexander Ignon (based on a story and screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum).

More involving and more nerve-wracking than its fairly predictable plotline necessitates, Ron Howard continues the role he started with Apollo 13 of turning out strong mainstream entertainments that mount incredible tension despite known endings. Our man Mel, out of his kilt and minus the blue face-paint, is now playing a warrior of a different type: Tom Mullen, a corporate power player who is used to getting everything when and how he wants it. His wife Kate (René Russo) is probably more disenchanted with her husband's headstrong tendencies than she lets on, but if all isn't necessarily well in the Mullen household, it's at least well-decorated and relatively calm until their young son Sean (Brawley Nolte, son of Nick) is apprehended while under Tom's supervision at an outdoor science fair, or raffle, or charity event, or something—come on, does this really matter?

Another of Howard's virtues, his keen sense for casting, comes through not only in his pairing of Gibson and Russo, who are both more challenged and invigorating here than we are used to seeing them, but in the den of thieves he's put together to play Sean's abductors. These not only include ex-New Kid Donnie Wahlberg (not quite the acting equal of younger brother Mark, though he's perfectly adequate), but also I Shot Andy Warhol's Lili Taylor, who had a very good year in 1996, and The Daytrippers' Liev Schreiber, later seen as Cotton Weary in Scream 2. That these two staples of indie movies can appear here without the slightest sense of slumming is a tribute to the precision of Howard's direction, though the formula of Ransom's story intrudes more and more on the interesting character work as the movie progresses. I also must voice some discontent with the casting of Gary Sinise, who is so viperish in look and demeanor that no one should be surprised to see him exposed as the arch-villain who leads the abduction and hostage operation.

Whatever its failings, Ransom, like Martin Scorsese's phenomenal Cape Fear, could have gotten by just through plugging talented, photogenic stars into a proven storyline of a mid-century Hollywood hit. Like Scorsese's Cape Fear (though nowhere near that film's virtuoso play with its genre), Ransom adds immeasurably to the tension by characterizing the "good guys" as a tense and precarious family unprepared to withstand so strong a blow. Ransom, perhaps, missteps too far into chaos (or, looked at differently, aims too tidily for symmetry) by also making the villains a fractious bunch who can't hang together. It is hardly a great film, or even significantly above average, but its limitations feel honest and unthreatening to the overall sturdiness of the movie—whereas most films that gross $136 million at the American box-office have lately been crass toss-offs whose limitations are built-in and pre-given. Let's also hope that Gibson's effective work here wins him more scripts that allow this deceptively dark and economical actor the chance to do more bristling work like he does here: it's a relief to see him twitter and rage under someone else's direction, among a cast who can hit back. Grade: B–

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Mel Gibson

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