Remember the days when Mel Gibson was a bankable A-list star?
It’s a shame that his deplorable off-screen behaviour has lost him his Hollywood connections, and that we just won’t get all that many movies from the man anymore. For those who think that he’s got nothing left to give audiences, you should check out his self-funded crime thriller Get the Gringo (aka How I Spent My Summer Vacation), a great little movie that just proves the man’s still got talent. With the recent Blu-ray release of both ‘Gringo and a number of his biggest movies, it’s the perfect time to revisit some of his greatest hits, including the Lethal Weapon Collection. First, we take a look at one of his last big Blockbuster hits: a defining modern-day kidnap-and-ransom thriller, Ron Howard’s Ransom.
“Pay me my money or you’re gonna’ find pieces of your little boy all over New York. I’m not gonna’ waste a bullet. I’m just gonna’ sharpen my knife.”
Tom Mullen is a self-made multi-millionaire who runs his own airline, having built it from scratch. He’s got a loving wife and a young son, and they live in a lavish New York City penthouse that overlooks Central Park. He’s got everything, and everything to lose. So when his son is kidnapped and held for ransom, Mullen and his wife are pushed to the edge in a desperate bid to get him back. Despite the assistance of the FBI – who were already investigating Mullen for purportedly bribing union officials – the simple plan to pay the ransom soon goes awry, and the desperate father has but one choice left: turn the table on the kidnappers and play them at their own game.
Sixteen years ago Gibson was at the top of his game. He may have made a name for himself in the Eighties, with the Mad Max series, and the first (and best) two Lethal Weapon films, but, commercially, he reached his peak in the nineties. Whilst 1992’s Lethal Weapon 3 is commonly regarded as the anorexic entry in his most popular film series, it gave one of his greatest Box Office successes, and proved to be the one of the most profitable movies in his entire career – a career spanning five decades. Yes, the nineties saw his greatest commercial successes – five out of six movies in a row raking in over $200 million at the Box Office (the only exception being his independently-funded directorial debut, The Man Without a Face) – and Ransom was one of the last movies that he would make which would break this barrier; indeed it’s been a decade since he even passed the $100 Million mark.
“You think you’re suffering right now? Huh? You got no idea what suffering is!”
In amidst a bunch of action-comedies and ‘historical’ epics, Gibson picked a role which he was simply made for, reflecting his age, turning his natural charm and effortless wit into paternal warmth, and channelling his predilection for playing effective avenging angels (from Max to Riggs) into a character which was far easier to relate to: a father trying to get his son back.
Informed by both the 50s film of the same name (itself based on a 50s TV series episode), and the compelling Akira Kurosawa / Toshiro Mifune classic High and Low (itself adapted from pulp crime writer Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom), the script would cleverly blend some of the best elements from these works – including the equal focus on the kidnappers’ story – into a solid thriller that carries more than enough twists to keep you hooked, and is held together by a heart and soul (Gibson’s torn father), always a reliable factor in Ron Howard movies.
Indeed whilst it doesn’t quite have the high-brow socio-political subtext of High and Low (merely hinting it at with some of the dialogue exchanges between the lead kidnapper and the father), nor the gritty revenge-fuelled mayhem of the excellent Denzel Washington kidnapping thriller, Man on Fire, Howard still manages to tread a comfortable middle-ground between intelligent thrills and entertaining melodrama, avoiding too many unnecessary saccharine-sweet touches in spite of his clear desire to satisfy a broader family audience. For those familiar with the original 50s Ransom film (starring Glenn Ford), the story may be familiar too – along with the twist – but that doesn’t matter too much because what holds everything together here, grounding the film with palpable authenticity, is the presence and performance of Gibson himself.
“This is your ransom. Two million dollars in unmarked bills, just like you wanted. But this is as close as you’ll ever get to it. You’ll never see one dollar of this money, because no ransom will ever be paid for my son. Not one dime, not one penny. Instead, I’m offering this money as a reward on your head. Dead or alive, it doesn’t matter.”
Coming off the back of his success on Braveheart, Gibson takes on an unusually restrained role (at least for the first half), and yet one which feels totally believable from the guy. He utterly convinces as the man who has lost his son; whose world is torn apart; and who has to go against the wishes of his friends and family – of his wife, and of the authorities advising them – to do whatever it takes to get his son back. To this day the key twist works because of Gibson’s total commitment to the role, putting every ounce of passion and zeal into his strength; making us feel for this torn father.
The most significant secondary character is that of Gary Sinise (a long way off his Apollo 13 role here), who plays a weary veteran New York City cop with all the cynicism you would expect, displaying great presence and serious threat in several key sequences. He makes for a worthy chess adversary, and plays excellently off Gibson’s rich-but-desperate family man.
The rest of the cast try their best with the satellite characters, but are tertiary at best. Even Renee Russo’s tough wife – and broken-hearted mother – does not gel as well here as she did with Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies (arguably her character isn’t given quite enough to do), although she gets more than the rest. Delroy Lindo (Get Shorty) plays a role which comes naturally to him; smooth, efficient and professional, he initially sees this as just another operation that should be conducted in a certain fashion – and Mullen’s complicated background, and self-created complications, only muddy-up his FBI Agent plan.
“Is it dark where you’re calling from? Got the shades drawn? Kind of like a cellar, right?! Like a cave? Well, you better get used to that. You better get used to crawling in the dark for the rest of your days, because I am gonna’ get the best group of manhunters in this country and I am gonna’ dedicate my life to tracking you down.”
You may also recognise a slightly snappy Dan Hedaya (Commando, Alien: Resurrection, Mulholland Drive), a young Liev Schrieber (The Sum of All Fears, X-Men: Wolverine, Salt), and a young Donnie Wahlberg (Saw II and IV, Dreamcatcher, Righteous Kill) – back when he looked even more like his brother, as well as Lily Taylor (Born on the Fourth of July, Factotum, Brooklyn’s Finest), all filling out the supporting crooks. Nick Nolte’s son, Brawley Nolte, does a commendable job as the child hostage, even if the part has its inherent restrictions.
Ron Howard, himself fresh off his noteworthy lunar trip with Apollo 13, does a surprisingly good job with what is arguably more adult material than he’s used to, the drama often spilling out into striking, punishing violence, which Howard thankfully does not shy away from. The gunshot and death sequences across the movie are probably the most graphically bloody shots he’s ever filmed, and little things like Sinise’s precision throat-chop feel genuinely painful, both visually and aurally.
After 16 years (yes, it’s not 15 years like the “15th Anniversary Edition” label would have you believe), Ransom does show its age around the edges, but the integrity of the core storyline, effectiveness of the plot twists, and dedicated performances from the key cast members all help keep it compelling and relevant. Even after 16 years the idea of having your son kidnapped – and doing whatever it takes to get him back – is strong enough for the dated elements to pale into insignificance.
Indeed the score is perhaps the most dated element – typical 90s fare which feels like just another Horner hack job (remember, he’s the guy who adapted the score from Enemy at the Gates for Avatar; well here he steals from his own Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger scores) – but it only really offends out of its striking and jarring lack of originality as opposed to its being old-fashioned.
At the end of the day, however, Ransom is still – undeniably – one of the best examples of a straight kidnapping story. It may have taken from other classics before it, and may have been adapted into various different productions since (including Kidnapped, a fairly effective TV series that even featured Delroy Lindo in an almost-identical role, and took in many of the key elements, whilst also throwing a little Man on Fire into the mix) but that does not change the fact that it is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging thriller which is well-constructed, competently and occasionally stylishly shot and well-acted. When it’s not treading on dark and fairly gritty territory, it has more than enough heart to draw you into the plight of the characters, and the whole thing stands well on the shoulders of its perfectly-chosen lead star.
“If I don’t get my son back – and I mean real soon – you better kill yourself, because when I catch up with you, I’m gonna’ take my goddamn time. By the time we’re finished, you’re gonna’ wish you weren’t born, do you understand me?!”
Mel Gibson has fallen a long way – at least in the eyes of his fans – but films like Ransom should remind you of just how great he was, even in atypical roles, and just what he brought to the table. I am a firm believer that he still has this kind of magic, passion and drive; it’s just a shame that he doesn’t really get these kinds of opportunities anymore.
Do yourself a favour – revisit Ransom. It’s a good story, told well; a good movie, done well. Recommended.
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