Friday, September 14, 2018

Neglected Gem: Ransom (1996)

Mel Gibson (with Brawley Nolte) in Ron Howard's 1996 version of Ransom. (Photo: IMDB)

Ransom was one of the few exciting American movies released in 1996 – not just gripping but conceptually exciting. And it was the first genuinely adult movie made by Ron Howard. The script, by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, adapts a long-forgotten picture from 1956 starring Glenn Ford and Donna Reed as a wealthy young couple whose little boy is kidnapped. (This version, which has an exclamation point at the end of the one-word title, shows up occasionally on TCM.) In the original, Ford is about to fork over the half a million dollars demanded by the kidnapper when a newsman covering the story (Leslie Nielsen) persuades him that he’s just as likely to get his son back without it, and – though the script never clarifies this thinking – that in fact the boy is in less danger if Ford doesn’t deliver the ransom. So Ford gets on TV – on the weekly show his vacuum-cleaner company sponsors – and announces that the half million is going on the head of the kidnapper if he harms the boy in any way. Eventually everyone turns against Ford for making this stand, except for the reporter and a loyal servant (Juano Hernandez) and the chief of police; even Reed, who’s doped up on sedatives, deserts him. But in the movie’s point of view, Ford has a superior take on the situation, and he turns out to be right when, in the final scene, the boy wanders in, completely unharmed. This Ransom! (which was released to theatres but feels like it was made for a TV anthology series like Playhouse 90) is a pure-fifties social problem picture, and its theme is straight out of the Arthur Miller translation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: the strong must learn to be lonely.

In the 1996 remake, the protagonist is an airline magnate named Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) whose business practices have earned him the name “Mr. Risk” in the media. Loaded with charisma, Mullen is one of those Fortune Magazine icons about whom many of us can’t resolve our feelings. He’s enviable but off-putting, because you sense there’s nothing he isn’t capable of. He recently averted a machinists’ strike that would have damaged his company badly, and a union exec (Dan Hedaya) ended up in prison for receiving a bribe, but there’s no proof to implicate Tom. He was tried in the tabloids, though, and convicted, because who could believe that this renegade business genius would stop short of gangsterism in order to protect his airline? Stannard, the vacuum-cleaner millionaire Ford played in the first version, was morally above reproach; Tom Mullen is guilty – he is a gangster, or practically. And it’s his first-hand knowledge of how a gangster thinks that enables him to second-guess Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), the unstable cop who’s responsible for the kidnapping of his son Sean (Brawley Nolte).

Tom Mullen is an American type, but one the movies haven’t explored before, and Gibson rises to the occasion with a superb, complex performance. Tom’s thinking turns around when his efforts to deliver the money according to Jimmy’s dictum backfire; the troops choppered in by the federal cop on the case, Agent Hawkins (Delroy Lindo), make their presence known, and Jimmy’s men scatter. (One, the most sympathetic to Sean’s plight, played by Donnie Wahlberg, gets killed.) At this point Tom’s instincts and experience go into high gear, and he decides it would be better to put the ransom money on the kidnappers’ heads. He’s playing power games with Shaker; he senses that his best bet is to remain in control, and ironically he does, even though it would seem that Jimmy’s one who’s holding the cards. Ransom’s critics argued that the movie shows that Mullen’s ruthlessness and street smarts make him a hero, a kind of self-made businessman-charmer version of Dirty Harry, and the TV trailers, which contained a clip from his TV announcement about making the money (two million) a bounty on the kidnappers, made it seem like they were right. But in the scene where Tom, on the phone to Jimmy, pushes him to the edge, daring him to shoot the boy, the movie surely can’t be suggesting that we applaud his behavior. Jimmy shoots in the air, out of exasperation, then hangs up, and of course Tom has no way of knowing that his bluff hasn’t ended up getting Sean killed after all. He wanders out onto the balcony of his house, falls to his knees, grasps the railing; he implodes. You understand that this way of dealing with his son’s kidnapper is a manifestation of a risk compulsion; given his psychology, there’s nothing else he could have done. And when the boy is returned, physically if not psychically safe, he Tom places him in danger a second time when Jimmy, claiming to be the brave cop who located the boy and dispatched the kidnappers, comes around for his reward. The movie examines the implications of the conduct of a Tom Mullen. He gets to keep what’s his, but the circle he draws around it and the reckless, barbed kind of hardball he’s willing to play to keep everyone else off it electrify their anger against him. When he shows up in prison to accuse the union guy of masterminding the kidnapping, the guards have to intervene to stop this man, whom Tom has used and discarded, from going after him. When he tries to trump Shaker for the second time, Shaker warns him that the next time he goes after Sean, he’ll do it for revenge, and he won’t want any ransom.

Gary Sinise as Jimmy Shaker. (Photo: IMDB)

I’m not sure what more Howard and the screenwriters could have done to prove that they’re morally ambivalent about Mullen, short of killing off the kid. It’s a very dark film. The return of the boy, safe and whole, at the end of the 1956 version justifies Stannard’s decision, but when Sean Mullen makes it back, he’s a wreck; he begs his parents to leave the lights on in his room when he goes to bed, and you can see this kid is going to have to sleep with the lights on for the rest of his life. (Brawley Nolte, who is Nick Nolte’s son, extends the family honor in this performance.) The movie’s treatment of Kate, Mullen’s wife (Rene Russo, very fine here), also gives us pause. When Tom decides on the new fate of the ransom money, Kate is very upset at first, but then she considers his point of view and allies herself to him. She explains to Agent Hawkins that she always goes along with her husband, because he unfailingly lands them on higher ground. She has no idea that Tom’s actually guilty of the bribery charges; her faith in him is a consequence of her love (and of the kind of woman she is), as well as of the steady, trustworthy image he’s been successful in projecting, at home as well as in the slick homegrown commercial for his airline – really a commercial for himself – that opens the picture. Of course he loves Kate; of course he loves Sean – the movie never shrouds his feelings for either of them in doubt for a moment. When the filmmakers suggest that he’s not who he seems, they mean something different, more elusive, and more fascinating.

The movie is a remarkably taut piece of direction; Howard doesn’t waste a scene. And the sequences involving the kidnappers stay with you the longest. Sinise plays Jimmy Shaker as a different kind of sociopath. He picks Mullen to target because he’s smart enough to spot him as an independent, a man whose instincts will tell him to face off his adversary on his own rather than rely on the advice of the feds, but from the first something else is functioning in his thinking, too – or rather, in his emotions. On the car phone with Tom, taking him through the treasure hunt that will supposedly lead him to Sean (before this phase comes to an abrupt and disastrous end), Jimmy keeps up a chant about the elegant settings a man like Tom Mullen frequents, the Whitney and the Met and the Four Seasons, that sounds like a mantra for the economically dispossessed. This is where Ransom intersects with Kurosawa’s great High and Low, about a poor man who targets the son of a rich businessman in a kidnap scheme not just for profit but mainly because he is so enraged at the economic gap between them. Sinise gives a chilling, lingering performance, and Lili Taylor, as his lover/accomplice, Maris Connor, is almost as good. Price and Ignon are overexplicit about Maris’s background, which clarifies her motivation; I would have preferred her to remain more mysterious. But the way in which Taylor factors the elements of her character’s past into Maris’s complicated, contradictory treatment of the kidnapped boy is impressive acting. Taylor received a great deal of praise for her portrayal of Valerie Solanis in I Shot Andy Warhol earlier the same year, but I found it a repellent, monotonous performance. I Shot Andy Warhol was one of the reasons we were supposed to be grateful for independent moviemaking for saving us from the horror of big studio releases – like, presumably, Ransom, which was handled by Touchstone. The fact is, however, that not a moment in I Shot Andy Warhol, a smug, obvious and insultingly stupid picture, comes close to taking the kinds of risks Ron Howard takes in just about every scene of Ransom.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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