Rich man, poor man

Ron Howard's "Ransom" takes a dark tumble into America's economic divide.

Published April 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It begins with a commercial and ends in the cold black and white of
newsprint. The 1996 kidnap drama "Ransom" traverses the parameters of
public life in America, from the image public figures present to us to the
image they never intended us to see. Neither one tells the whole truth.
Luckily, "Ransom" isn't content with surfaces.

It may sound strange to call a movie that was a big commercial hit "underrated." The trailers for "Ransom" sold it as a "Dirty Harry"-style action picture, and most reviewers were happy to pan it or praise it as such, evaluating the movie on how well it delivered the goods. This is one time, though, when audiences were sharper.

For weeks after "Ransom" opened, people asked if I'd seen it, with something like uncertainty in their voices. They'd liked the movie, but it wasn't what they had expected and they didn't quite know how to reconcile the conflicting feelings it stirred up in them. Watching it with a packed Saturday afternoon crowd, I was struck by how quiet the audience was. When the film got to the scene that had figured prominently in the trailers -- business tycoon Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) going on television to announce to his son's kidnappers that he was using the ransom they demanded as a bounty on their heads -- nobody cheered. The audience seemed as dumbstruck as the television crew who watches Tom make his offer. How, they all seemed to be asking, could anybody take this risk?

To their credit, neither director Ron Howard nor screenwriters Richard
Price and Alexander Ignon flinch from the answer: The business sense that has allowed Tom Mullen to parlay a couple of small airplanes into a
multimillion-dollar empire is the same thing that allows him to
comprehend the cunning of his boy's kidnappers. Ruthlessness is what
links entrepreneurs to criminals in "Ransom." Everything is negotiable.
Tom's wife, Kate (Rene Russo), says, "I stick with Tom and we always
manage to land on high ground." But Tom's decision to turn the tables on
the kidnappers isn't a deal he can keep hidden from Kate, and watching
him gamble that the kidnappers can't take the risk of carrying out their
threats to kill Sean (Brawley Nolte), she suddenly realizes how many people he's stepped on to lift them to their higher ground. One of those people, Jackie Brown (Dan Hedaya), a mobster whom Tom bribed to call off a union strike, wound up in jail while Tom, who denied making the bribe, got away with it. "I've got six kids and I'd die for every one of them," Jackie yells at Tom when accused of masterminding the kidnapping. As Tom's family is pulled apart, his and Kate's ordeal becomes a reflection of the families he pulled apart to come out on top.

"Ransom" is the first American movie to acknowledge the new reality of the country's economic divide. As a recent article in the Atlantic put it, that divide is no longer between the rich and the poor, but between the rich and the rest of us. On the far reaches of that divide, neither side can afford to regard the other as human beings. Like the business magnate played by Toshiro Mifune in Akira Kurosawa's kidnap film "High and Low" (to which "Ransom" is indebted), a man whose house sits high on a hill looking down on Tokyo, Tom Mullen lives in a Manhattan penthouse high above the people whose lives his business decisions affect. One of them,
Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), is a police detective who can't keep his resentment of Tom from affecting his job.

In one scene Shaker watches as Tom writes a check for $4 million, and the look on Sinise's face is of a man caving in on himself. He hates Tom and envies him, and he hates himself for feeling that envy. Shaker is the sort of straight-arrow American hero the movies teach us to love. You can imagine him in military dress looking out from photos proudly displayed on top of parents' television sets, or in a newspaper shot accepting some commendation for bravery in the line of duty. Sinise plays him as a man who, in the predatory reality of post-Reagan America, has come to realize how little all that's worth in a world where everything has its price. Shaker seems always to be watching himself, calibrating his responses. Through much of "Ransom," Sinise looks like a guy trying to keep a poker face while a serpent coils itself around his innards.

What makes "Ransom" so unsettling is that, after acknowledging the
resentments we harbor toward the people who have power over us,
Howard, Price and Ignon then arrange the film so that we come to feel the
horrible necessity of Tom Mullen's view of the world. His willingness to
use the same kind of power he's employed to crush unions and anything
else that encroaches on his turf is, here, what keeps his son alive. And in
order to win, he stokes the hatred that spurred the kidnappers in the first
place. When they call him in the spaciousness of his penthouse, he asks, "Is it dark where you're calling from, ya got the shades drawn? Kinda like a cellar, right? Like a cave? Well you better get used to that, you better get used to crawling in the dark for the rest of your days." Over the course of his career, Mel Gibson has both coasted on his charm and been an actor. He combines the two here, using his familiar affability to draw us to Tom and winning us over before he ventures into the movie's darker territory.

"Ransom" isn't all it might have been in the hands of, say, Brian De Palma
or Philip Kaufman. It's humorless (always a drawback for a thriller), a mite cold and no fun. Howard doesn't have the sort of fevered temperament that would allow the film's violence to transcend its brutality (though his handling of Sean, glimpsed blindfolded and handcuffed to a bed in a soundproof room, is scrupulous throughout; he never lingers on the boy's fear). But he does fine work with his cast (particularly Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg as the kidnappers), and "Ransom" is a tight, intelligent and, on its own terms, uncompromised piece of direction.

"Ransom" is dark and risky in a way that's become almost unthinkable for
mainstream movies in the '90s. It doesn't resolve its conflicts or allow the audience triumph or release. In the guise of a thriller, Howard made a
serious examination of the ambiguity of power. "Ransom" must have been
pitched to the studio heads in the same way it was sold to audiences; neither got quite the film they bargained for. That's the result of smart people knowing that their movie had to be different from the world it depicted, not just business as usual.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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