I'm not sure there's any such thing as a realistic thriller. By its very nature, the movie thriller we've all come to know and love must be filled with enough conflict and hyperbole to keep our attention, thus straining credibility. But Ron Howard's 1996 production of "Ransom" with Mel Gibson and Rene Russo takes the thriller about as far as it can go in attempting the almost impossible feat of enthralling us and surprising us while keeping the goings on reasonably believable, too. The movie is not entirely successful at everything it attempts, but it's close.
Adapted from the 1956 Glenn Ford movie "Ransom!" (also known by the title "Fearful Decision"), written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, the story concerns the kidnapping and ransom of a rich man's son, and the man's attempts to get him back when it appears the police and FBI are ineffectual.
But this is no mere story of a father's heroism. If that were the case, Harrison Ford might have made a better lead than Mel Gibson. Instead, this film takes us on a tortuous road of twists and turns, where the father's distress and determination lead him to try and outwit the cunning and ruthless kidnappers. Although there are assuredly moments of melodramatic thrills and excitement in the film, it is the chess match between the father and the criminals that sets the film apart from the rest of its kind.
Gibson plays multimillionaire Tom Mullen, a former Air Force fighter pilot, now the chairman of his own worldwide airlines. He's a genuinely good, but flawed, man who finds himself compromised when his ten-year-old son is kidnapped and held for $2,000,000 ransom. One of the suspects in the kidnapping is a union boss who was jailed after Tom offered to pay him off. Tom feels guilty and thinks the union boss is out to get him. But how to explain a situation to the FBI where Tom is equally to blame for a crime of which the union guy was convicted? In any case, Gibson's performance is filled with sentiment, a love and devotion for his son that is wholehearted and eagerly expressed, along with an agony bordering on hysteria. Gibson is not afraid to show this man's vulnerabilities.
Rene Russo plays Kate Mullen, Tom's not-always-understanding wife. When the FBI seem to be flubbing the case and Tom decides to take matters into his own hands in a most unconventional way, Kate is less than happy. Her own hysteria clouds her judgments, to be sure, yet she is probably the more rational of the two parents in the situation.
Young Brawley Nolte, son of actor Nick Nolte, plays the boy, who doesn't really have a lot to do in the film but look helpless. He succeeds. And Delroy Lindo plays Lonnie Hawkins, the FBI agent in charge of the case, a no-nonsense sort of fellow who wants to play it straight by the book. But as he admits, he doesn't always get the hostage back playing by the book.
More to the point are the baddies. Leading the way is Gary Sinise as Det. Jimmy Shaker, a New York City plainclothes policeman who is tough, smart, cold, calculating, and, from the very start, mean and treacherous. If you recall Gary Oldman from "The Professional," think of a more clean-cut and only slightly less despicable character. Forget Lt. Dan. Liev Schreiber and Mark Wahlberg play brothers Clark and Cubby Barnes, the two men who actually carry out the kidnapping. Lili Taylor plays Maris Conner, another of the kidnappers, who is in charge of keeping the boy alive until he isn't needed anymore. And Evan Handler plays Miles Roberts, a computer expert who works with the kidnappers to jam communications when the kidnappers make their telephone demands.
The movie is tense and sometimes exciting, although the basic premise is a mite banal from overexposure. The film's trump card is its ability to keep us guessing what's going to happen next. Not whether the good guys are going to triumph over the bad guys in the end--that is pretty well understood in these types of movies--but how and where it's going to happen. Just as you think you know what's about to happen next, a new shift in events occurs to open up a whole new plot thread.
Ron Howard is a skilled if not always daring filmmaker who paces the action well and keeps most of the circumstances within the range of possibility. Almost. When Tom realizes that there is no reason for the kidnappers to return his son alive, he persuades himself to deal with the problem alone, and the solution he comes up with seems more than a little preposterous. But it's clever, and it does create a fresh path for the story line.
"Ransom" is unrelenting, but it never completely draws us in. It is realistically grim and very well acted by everyone involved, but it is too exaggerated to be entirely plausible, with an ending that takes us into one melodramatic turn too many. But it is, after all, still just a movie thriller, not a serious drama. Keep that in mind, and you'll have fun with it.
This is the second time the Buena Vista folks have released "Ransom" on DVD, and this transfer appears to be the same as the first one. It's still the theatrical-release length, 121 minutes, as opposed to the laser-disc length of 139 minutes, and it's still non-anamorphic. At least, I'm assuming it's not anamorphic because it doesn't say on the keep case that it's "anamorphic" or "enhanced for 16x9 televisions" as BV usually announce, and its picture has all the earmarks of a non-anamorhic transfer. It's too bad; with a remastering, the studio had their chance to make a "Special Edition" something really special.
The video is not bad, mind you, but it is annoying to know that if it had been remastered and cleaned up, it could have been better. Flickers and occasional age specks appear from the opening credits on, with a small degree of grain and a good number of moiré effects continuing throughout the movie. The wavering, jittery lines are the most annoying thing, overall. Window panes and Venetian blinds are the most notable culprits, and the small, square, glass wall panels in the Mullens' kitchen positively come to life and dance in several shots. Facial hues are mostly natural, but outdoor locations show up as slightly more faded than expected. Otherwise, colors are reasonably deep, if a bit rough in appearance, and definition varies from nearly perfect to a tad blurred.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is serviceable, showing up best during a few crowd scenes, with voices and noises in the rear channels. The audio hasn't the widest separation, though, or the widest dynamic range, at least not at first, but it's used more effectively as the story progresses. A helicopter flyover, for instance, inevitable in any respectable thriller, makes a strong appearance in surround.
So, what makes this "Special Edition" special? Four things, it would appear. There's an audio commentary with director Ron Howard. There are four deleted scenes totalling less than five minutes. Don't know what happened to the rest of the material on the laser disc. There's a thirteen-minute featurette, "What Would You Do?," made during the movie's production as a promotional item. And there's another, four-minute featurette, "Between Takes: Sticking With Ron," that doesn't amount to much. A scant ten scene selections seems unforgivable for a two-hour movie, as does a pan-and-scan trailer. As with the previous DVD release, English and French remain the spoken language choices, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Ransom" offers about what you'd expect in a thriller and more. The "more" is the number of surprises the movie provides and the anguish in Gibson's performance. These elements elevate "Ransom" above the ordinary and ensure that unless you expect high drama or intense realism, the movie is going to provide solid Hollywood entertainment. The movie is rated R for profanity and violence.