'Ransom' scores as contest of wits between two men

by Sean Levy | 11/20/96 6:00am

"Ransom," the latest in an offering of high-action blockbuster films, attempts to provide suspense by taking the viewer on complex twists of the plot.

As the name implies, "Ransom" tells the story of the abduction of Sean Mullen (Brawley Nolte), the young son of a wealthy New York airline tycoon, Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), and his wife Kate (Rene Russo).

"Ransom" is the first film venture by both Ron Howard and Gibson since their respective acclaimed and Oscar-nominated directing of "Apollo 13" and "Braveheart."

A corrupt detective named Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinese), the man who organizes the kidnapping, heads a group of criminals who hold Sean captive for an asking price of $2 million.

The kidnapper concludes that Mullen will undoubtedly fork over the money, since it seems that such a rich man would not mind parting with a paltry sum in exchange for having his son back.

A ransom expert (Delroy Lindo), who is hired to help recover the boy, proudly declares to Mullen that he has been able get a hostage back alive seven out of ten times. He repeatedly advises Mullen to be deliberate and cautious in dealing with the kidnapper -- and, no matter what, to pay the ransom.

Despite these words of caution, Mullen refuses to follow the expert's advice. He appears on a local television station surrounded by the ransom money, and announces that rather than paying the ransom, he is offering the money -- as a bounty on the kidnapper's head unless he returns Sean.

Howard crafts his story by using cliched images and touching upon obvious symbolic themes, such as Mullen's association with risk-taking in the movie. Such characterization led Newsweek and Time Magazines to dub him "Mr. Risk."

"Ransom" has the potential to explore a perplexing theme -- revealing how a family man can degenerate into a savage and ruthless being when provoked. Unfortunately, this transformation is not brought to fruition as effectively as it could have been.

In addition, Sinese does a good job as the villain by exuding a certain emotionless and unbreakable purpose which is sufficiently creepy for the role. Howard bathes Sinese in dark and red-hued lighting, making Shaker appear cold-blooded and serpentine.

The real appeal of the film is the matching of wits and concentration between these fiercely competitive characters. As in both "In the Line of Fire" and "The Fugitive," the central conflict between two men becomes the driving force of the picture.

Despite Howard's success in crafting this mental showdown, the film falls apart in many areas. The supporting characters are weakly defined, and many parts of the plot appear inconsistent or unbelievable.

Russo portrays Mullen's wife as a bland, undeveloped character who is wholly dependent on Mullen and cedes all decision-making power to him.

"Ransom" does include some riveting scenes, such one in which Mullen must switch cars, change clothes and swim through a pool to follow the kidnapper's instructions. In addition, the kidnapper's playing on both sides of the law as criminal and cop provides for many intriguing scenes.

Ultimately, the weakness of "Ransom" lies in a number of small faults and a certain unevenness which does not destroy the appeal of the film, but certainly weakens it.

It is just that one expects more depth and complexity of character in a film from a director of Howard's caliber. If you are looking for a film that is diverting but certainly not memorable, then "Ransom" will be worth your bottom dollar.

Press tickets provided courtesy of the Nugget Theater.