A crackerjack thriller with some unusually tasty plot twists, "Ransom" pays plenty of entertaining dividends. Mel Gibson very effectively stars in a made-to-order role as a wealthy business exec who eventually must take matters into his own hands to try to rescue his kidnapped son.

A crackerjack thriller with some unusually tasty plot twists, “Ransom” pays plenty of entertaining dividends. Mel Gibson very effectively stars in a made-to-order role as a wealthy business exec who eventually must take matters into his own hands to try to rescue his kidnapped son. While the theme involving child jeopardy will keep some prospective viewers away, the diabolically clever storyline, vice-tightening suspense and vintage leading performance should result in a big payoff from this first of the major year-end releases.

Although it is nowhere mentioned in the credits, pic is based on a 1956 MGM release of the same name starring Glenn Ford, Donna Reed and Leslie Nielsen, and directed by Alex Segal, who had previously helmed the Cyril Hume-Richard Maibaum story for live television. These origins may help account for the fact that the basic plot is considerably better constructed than the great majority of thrillers these days, which generally go for sensation and effect rather than dramatic plausibility and ingenuity.

A self-made man who rose up from Air Force fighter pilot to found and run what is now the nation’s fourth-largest airline, Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) is an I-Did-It-My-Way type who now, in early middle age, has settled into Upper East Side comfort and respectability with his wife, Kate (Rene Russo), and son Sean (Brawley Nolte). He also is image-conscious, especially after some recent labor strife he secretly resolved by bribing a union official, who has since been locked up.

In an instant, the family’s life is turned into a nightmare when, on an outing in Central Park, 9-year-old Sean vanishes. In short order, Tom is contacted by a voiceover e-mail demanding $ 2 million within 48 hours and warning against involving the authorities.

The FBI turns up immediately, although Tom’s intention from the beginning is to pay, which he easily can afford to do. All the while, young Sean is being held, bound and blinded by tape, in a dingy apartment, and it is not revealing too much, as the film does so almost at once, to say that the ringleader is renegade cop Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), whose knowledge of technology and police techniques is so complete that he can thwart all attempts to trace him. Also in on the job are his g.f. Maris (Lili Taylor), who has worked for the Mullens, two grungy brothers (Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg) and another lowlife (Evan Handler).

His voice electronically disguised, Jimmy gives elaborate orders to Tom about executing the drop, which is botched when the feds move in too fast. From here, the stakes are raised much higher, as Tom comes to assume that, if his son isn’t dead already, he was never intended to be returned alive. This realization prompts him to the bold, risky maneuver of turning the tables on his nemesis by going on TV, withdrawing the ransom and offering it instead as bounty for the head of the kidnapper, regardless of whether or not Sean turns up alive.

Almost everyone, from Kate and chief FBI case officer Hawkins (Delroy Lindo) to the general public, takes sharp issue with Tom’s tactic, but his gutsy move pays off, leading to an explosive and highly ironic action climax. But the game is still not up, as Tom is put through the wringer one more time in an extended coda comprised of minute cat-and-mouse moves.

Although the story is built around the automatically emotional situation of an imperiled kid, scripters Richard Price (who appears briefly as an uncomfortably handcuffed victim of Sinise in the early going) and Alexander Ignon and director Ron Howard largely steer clear of milking the easy melodrama. In fact, they give more time to such interesting matters as the tycoon’s paradoxical impulses to pay off union officials for business reasons but not to pay for the return of his son, his difficulty accepting the personal reasons he was targeted for this crime, and his inability to believe that someone who had spent time in his home (Taylor’s Maris) would turn so viciously on his family.

Aside from being entirely believable as a maverick business tycoon, Gibson excels at the sort of volatile emotional turns called for by this role. Necessarily keeping his temper in check most of the time while his wife trembles and broods, he explodes at some moments, but makes his most important decisions quietly and inwardly. It is a thoroughly successful performance, one of the actor’s best.

Perhaps the picture’s most intriguing subtext lies in the fact that the rich, sympathetic leads are played by big movie stars, while the villains are largely portrayed by icons of the low-budget independent cinema. Sinise, outstanding as the turncoat cop, has, of course, crossed over into major features but prominently began in the indie world, and Taylor and Schreiber are very prominent indie banner-carriers. Are the filmmakers trying to tell us something?

On the downside, Russo’s Kate has been given little to do as Tom’s distraught wife, and Lindo’s perennially upbeat FBI agent is almost too good to be true. He speaks the picture’s silliest line when he tells his wife over the phone, “I’m so glad we’re not rich.” And Sinise’s division of U.S. society into ruling elite and subjugated drones is too simplistic for so otherwise smart a character.

But the storytelling is highly efficient, with director Howard and ace lenser Piotr Sobocinski (“Red”) often employing a very mobile but superbly controlled hand-held camera to draw the viewer into the situation. Pic has a resplendent professional sheen that is nicely offset by the hard-edged Gotham locations and rough, abruptly erupting action.

Ransom

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Brian Grazer/Scott Rudin production. Produced by Rudin, Grazer, B. Kipling Hagopian. Executive producer, Todd Hallowell. Co-producers, Adam Schroeder, Susan Merzbach. Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay, Richard Price, Alexander Ignon, story by Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum.

Crew

Camera (DuArt color, Technicolor prints), Piotr Sobocinski; editors, Dan Hanley, Mike Hill; music, James Horner; production design, Michael Corenblith; art direction, John Kasarda; set decoration, Susan Bode; costume design, Rita Ryack; sound (Dolby digital), Danny Michael; associate producers, Aldric Laauli Porter, Louisa Velis; assistant director, Porter; casting, Jane Jenkins, Janet Hirshenson. Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, Calif., Oct. 31, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Tom Mullen - Mel Gibson Kate Mullen - Rene Russo Jimmy Shaker - Gary Sinise Agent Lonnie Hawkins - Delroy Lindo Maris Connor - Lili Taylor Clark Barnes - Liev Schreiber Miles Roberts - Evan Handler Cubby Barnes - Donnie Wahlberg Sean Mullen - Brawley Nolte Jackie Brown - Dan Hedaya Wallace - Paul Guilfoyle Agent Jack Sickler - Michael Gaston David Torres - Jose Zuniga Agent Kimba Welch - Nancy Ticotin

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