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Thursday, April 24, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 37 - Ransom (1996)

Ransom (1996); Touchstone Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Richard Price, Alexander Ingon
Starring: Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo

This one will be a little shorter as Ransom is a rather straightforward movie.  Ron Howard was on a roll for a few years there, directing some really solid films in the 80’s and by the mid-90’s, thanks largely to the success of Apollo 13, Howard had become one of the biggest directors of his day.  He continues to establish himself as a reliable, talented filmmaker capable of bringing great performances out of actors and taking a story from the biggest idea to the simplest one and making it captivating on screen.

Now, how do you follow up a modern historical epic like Apollo 13?  Howard’s very next film was a simpler project called Ransom.  It was no special effects extravaganza nor was it even really all that bombastic, it was a simple story told naturally through solid direction and good performances.  Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in the idea of a “blockbuster” that we forget that, every once and a while, the simplest stories can be the most powerful.

Ransom is the story of a wealthy father and mother named Tom and Kate Mullen (Gibson and Russo) whose son, Sean, is kidnapped during a city science fair in New York.  What follows shows us two sides of a gripping story.  We focus mainly on the perspective of the parents who mostly remain at their apartment, surrounded by police and negotiators working to bring their child home safely.  On the other hand we get into the minds of the kidnappers as well.  Instead of doing the typical Hollywood shtick of the faceless bad guys, we get very human kidnappers who are all very bad people, but they are still people nonetheless.  The small gang of villains is led by Gary Sinise, who is intense as Hell portraying a violent, corrupt detective named Jimmy Shaker, who is looking to make a payday off of the parents’ fear of their young boy’s death, but is also motivated by a personal vendetta against the Mullens.

What makes this movie work is, as the story goes on, and the police (led by the excellent Delroy Lindo) begin to look more and more incompetent, Tom takes it upon himself to offer his own ransom for the safe return of his son, turning the tables on the negotiations entirely.  The intensity of Gibson and Sinise squaring off indirectly over the safety of Sean is powerful stuff.  These are two actors who can really be both intimidating and forceful on screen, and the conflict between one father’s rage versus the villains’ greed is a major factor in why I like this movie.

Ron Howard does a good job guiding each scene with a rhythm and a nice pace so that the film never feels to stagnant.  Even scenes of the parents waiting for a phone call are filled with tension and each performance reflects that building pressure while never becoming emotionally-manipulative.  We empathize with the parents’ fears because they are fears we can understand.  This is not like Commando where a child is at risk but we are ensured their safety with the promise of a heroic rescue.  Ransom is pretty realistic in how it approaches its story, and there is a constant threat of tragedy throughout the film.

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