Ransom: a darker thriller than it gets credit for?

Mel Gibson took on a big movie star role with Ransom. We take a look back at Ron Howard's 1996 thriller...

If you were a regular cinemagoer around 1996, then you can’t help but have seen the trailer for Ron Howard’s Ransom. Inevitably, time has dampened its impact a little but it was a promo that quite superbly sold the film (which would go on to take more than $300m at the box office worldwide). At first glance a tale of a rich man whose son is kidnapped, the trailer showed how the tables were to be turned: instead of the ransom money being handed over to the kidnappers, Gibson’s character offered it as a bounty on the kidnappers’ heads instead. The hunt is then turned around, quite cleverly.

Watching Ransom at the time, I always thought that the film, whilst not without merit, never fully delivered on that idea. I remember Total Film reviewed the film in its very first issue, and I was nodding in agreement at Matt Bielby’s review. Come the half way point, the film lets go when it should be powering forward. The premise appears to be frittered away.

Rewatching it? Well, time hasn’t been particularly kind to some segments of the film, but there’s an awful lot of stuff in grey areas that Ransom perhaps never quite got enough credit for.

Slow Start

Let’s get the worst bit out of the way first though. The opening 15 minutes are galloped through, and rightly so. They’re the bits the film is least interested in exploring, and as such, business is done swiftly. We meet Mel Gibson’s Tom Mullen, the head of an airline, and we discover, via the power of his new TV commercial, that he’s a nice everyday man. He owns a hat, he believes in family, he cracks an X-Men joke before X-Men jokes were popular, and he’s got that Mel Gibson matinee charm that he possessed in buckets when his career was at his peak.

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A quick snog with his wife, played by Rene Russo, in the midst of a party at his posh apartment confirms that his marriage is clearly idyllic (heck, they’d have a baby in the follow year’s Lethal Weapon 4). And then there’s their young son Sean, played by Nick Nolte’s son, Brawley. The three are clearly a tight family unit, so something’s bound to go wrong.

And it does, courtesy of a not-very-well-handled kidnap sequence. Ron Howard showed a far surer touch with last year’s Rush (and, earlier than that, with his hugely underrated The Missing), and you wonder what he’d make of this particular part of the film now. Everything in this part of Ransom is so desperately signposted.

James Horner, for instance, delivers a strong score for the film, but his hands are spent down at the lower end of his piano for much of the kidnap, which takes place in New York’s Central Park. There’s no tension, because the clues as to what to feel and think are everywhere. Heck, Sean has a flying contraption, which exists to signpost when he’s been grabbed. And then his father is stood by the van his kidnapped, non-protesting son is in, without noticing. It’s done with the subtlety of a particularly well worn wellington boot being aimed squarely at speed towards the groin area.

Fortunately, this bit is done and dusted quickly, and that’s where Ransom starts to veer a little away from the outright commercial film it first appears to be. For Ransom is an R-rated movie, at a point where movie stars were allowed to make them and still expect their film to be a big hit. As such, the next 40 minutes or so show the cracks in Mullen’s public persona, whilst juggling the machinations of a conventional kidnap plot.


It’s a brave move on the part of the script – credited to Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, from a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (who had adapted a 1954 episode of The United States Steel Hour into the 1956 feature Ransom!, starring Glenn Ford, making Ransom a sort-of-remake) – to focus almost as much time on the kidnappers as it does the Mullens. And a lot of the time it works.

For considering how efficiently the kidnap itself takes place, there’s a lot of incompetence amongst the kidnappers. Right from the start, they’re a flawed bunch. One of them chugs back booze, Liev Schreiber shows off his haircut, whilst Lili Taylor tries to hold them together. You’re sat there thinking that there’s no way this lot could pull this job off without someone else involved, and then Gary Sinise appears. The mystery – if you’d somehow missed the trailer – is solved.

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Sinise is a cop, but a cop looking for a payday, and it becomes apparent that he’s organised the Mullen kidnapping. His fine plan only looks dodgy when you realise that he’s recruited fairly piss-poor kidnappers, but we’ll come to that shortly.

It’s interesting the way Sinise plays his character, Jimmy Shaker. It’s nowhere near as sinister and effective as something like Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, but it’s still a fine piece of work, that has an impact because he doesn’t showboat. He threads Shaker with an ordinary-ness. He never feels sinister as a consequence of that, but he is a solid foe.

Meet Tom Mullen

Still, it does always feel as though this isn’t a fairly matched fight, and there’s not a single moment where you feel the kidnappers will prevail. But that’s also in part because of some interesting turns taken with Gibson’s character.

At first it’s hinted in Ransom that Tom Mullen is a far from perfect man. And then it’s confirmed. We learn that he’s been under investigation by the FBI for allegedly bribing a union official to avert a machinist’s strike at his airline. As it turns out, not only did he do it, but said union official, played in a brief cameo by Dan Hedaya (still one of the screen’s finest Richard Nixons), went to prison, and Mullen didn’t. Said official, Jackie Brown, has kids too, and we only see him on screen when Mullen visits him in prison, to accuse him of being involved in the kidnap of Sean. The visit doesn’t go well. The film threatens to take a far darker turn.

And yet it’s the bribing of Jackie Brown that, we learn, is at the heart of why Mullen was chosen for the ransom attempt in the first place. Delroy Lindo is excellent as the lead FBI investigator, Agent Lonnie Hawkins, and he first of all points out that the seemingly cheap $2m ransom Tom is being asked for is wise, because he’ll pay up without blinking (later, Tom admits that he’d have paid 20 times as much). But it’s during a strange, on-the-move sort of tete-a-tete between Shaker and Tom that the real reason comes to light: Shaker knows that Tom pays to get out of trouble (and it’s a great moment in the film when he puts that to him). And he’s right.

Rules Of The Ransom

So: we have a dark central character, willing to cheat to get what he wants (perhaps as dark a lead character had played since the original Lethal Weapon). Then we have a lead kidnapper leading a double life of his own. It evolves into an intriguing setup. Which it then fails to make the most of, even if it gets close.

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It doesn’t help that Shaker breaks so many of his rules, and rides roughshod over logic. Rule one: don’t involve the police. Tom Mullen pretty much instantly calls the police. There is no real penalty for this. Rule two: Shaker disguises his voice, and keeps conversation to a bare minimum. But then, in the character development bit that doesn’t really work, during a long-ish car journey the pair have a chat over a walkie-talkie. Shaker gives away information for no logical reason at all. A man driven by the money suddenly wants to explain why he wants it. It’s a bit baffling.

Surprisingly, it takes a long time to get to the film’s big trailer moment (and it’s a real shame this was given away: it’d be an excellent twist if you didn’t know it was coming, rather than it being the thrust of the marketing campaign). Over half the film has gone when Tom Mullen, for reasons not always easy to agree with (save for one botched money drop), decides there’s no chance he’s going to get his son back, and turns the money against the kidnappers. The film then establishes that Shaker is set to kill Sean no matter what, but it’s hard to see that Tom would be so sure of this from his perspective, and consequently justify his game of Russian Roulette with his child’s life. You can’t help but conclude that Tom Mullen is more ruthless bastard than good father.

The film doesn’t quite explore the media furore of turning a ransom into a bounty (save for one line or two) – although it puts Delroy Lindo in a bad mood – but does explore the differing perspectives of Tom and his wife as a result of the former’s decision. The division between the pair grows, and the film continues to get more interesting. If they ever decide to break Ransom down into a TV show, this is the part ripe for further exploration in particular.


Sean’s eventual rescue comes as a result of Tom’s doubling of the ransom, and it’s a nice development of events. Shaker decides that he’s basically going to turn in his accomplices and emerge the hero. It’s set up for a genuinely thrilling finale.

Yet it took a long script conference, it seems, to work out how to play the last ten minutes. As such, it feels a little forced that Shaker and Tom end up chatting in the latter’s apartment as the former rushes to get his money. It takes Sean Mullen pissing himself before Tom realises that all isn’t well, but Ron Howard – whose direction here is generally good – shows us lots of shots of the penny dropping, taking extra care to make sure we got the message that came through the first time. A fairly traditional Hollywood ending ensues (where you’re sat puzzling as to why Shaker would agree to accompany Tom to the bank to get his money, rather than go with the earlier suggestion of activating a wire transfer by phone).

Yet when Howard pulls back and lets the credits roll, there’s a sense that there’s a much darker ending had the film kept running for another five minutes or so. After all, there’s one moment we see where Sean Mullen can’t sleep in the dark, and his father promises they’ll always leave the light on. But then as Sean also sees Shaker in his own home, you can’t imagine the longer term ramifications of that will be too healthy. Sean has, after all, been held for at least three days, if not longer. The psychological damage is barely hinted at, but there’s no way the Mullens will ever get back to happy families.

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In fact, far more likely is that Tom Mullen will end up in prison. At first, he confesses to Lindo’s Agent that he did indeed bribe Jackie Brown. Agent Hawkins reveals later in the film that he’s not shared that information with anyone else, but then it’s talked about out in the open again a little later, with more witnesses. Tom Mullen says out loud that he’s not scared of going to jail, and it’s probably a good job. Either he goes (presumably leading to the eventual dismantling of his much-vaunted airline), or an innocent man with children of his own gets to rot in his cell. No ending to that storyline is particularly pleasant. There’s a feeling on more than one occasion, in fact, that some darker character material has been excised to keep things moving along.

Dark Blockbuster

In truth, it’s easy to sit here and ponder what Ransom could have been had a David Fincher taken it on. In fact, last year’s Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes the same base idea and does something ultimately more successful and dark with it.

Yet Ransom is no failure, and remains at least two thirds of a very good, occasionally surprising movie, and a continued progression for Ron Howard as a director.

That’s all the more impressive considering it had different pressures. It was a big Mel Gibson blockbuster movie after all, from a commercial director, and it’s surprising that it was willing to paint his character in shades of grey. Furthermore, it also gambles by telling us virtually all of the information we need – right down to the identity of the kidnappers – surprisingly early on. The gamble just about pays off.

In fact, it feels as though Ransom is a collection of small to middling gambles, at times hidden behind very conventional clothing. But, and this is in large part to Mel Gibson’s central performance (a very generous one too, given how many in the ensemble get a chance to take screen time from him), it works more often than not. It stands up quite well too. It’s not quite possible to follow the logic that each of the characters uses to make their choices throughout the film, but there’s still an overriding sense that an interesting idea didn’t get fully watered down in the Hollywood process.

And Ron Howard, for one, deserves a lot of credit for that.

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