Ransom (1996)

D: Ron Howard
S: Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinese

Ron Howard has become one of modern Hollywood's equivalents of the Studio System's director-for-hire; a capable craftsman capable of turning his hand to any kind of project and delivering a solid, well-made movie which is usually successful enough at the box-office to justify hiring him again. That the films he has made since turning to directing in the late 1970s have been dramatically thin and unconvincing should then come as no surprise, because his focus has always been on getting the job done as efficiently as possible rather than what any of it might really be about.

It was all innocent enough when we were dealing with Splash, Volunteers, Gung-Ho, Cocoon and Willow, but when he started moving up to dramatically weighty material such as Parenthood (a transitional film), Backdraft, The Paper, Apollo 13 and even Far and Away (epic size and scale always adds weight, regardless of how dim it is under the surface), things got a little stickier. It was easy to applaud how workmanlike Howard could be with action, how well he could juggle narrative structure to keep a story moving, and how easily he could fit characters into their most effective roles to win sympathy and keep us watching. He has directorial ability equal to Howard Hawks or Michael Curtiz, and can even aspire to illusory moments of thematic or authorial clarity (as have been applied to both these men). But there is never any real grasp of issues in these films, and the people he places in dire jeopardy are never really believable outside the cinematic world he crafts so well. One might hope to encounter some of John Ford's characters in the real world, rounded individuals with inexplicable quirks and sometimes unfathomable motives (though, obviously, ironically, his Wyatt Earp and Abraham Lincoln are a different matter). But Ford was an artist, not a hack. Ron Howard is a hack.

Ransom is the case in point. This tough, violent, horrifying story of the kidnap of a rich man's son and the consequent scrambling of official and unofficial persons in response has, on the surface, most of the elements of real human anguish and a sense of the pain and desperation which drives its central character into more and more outrageous depths of patrimonial protection, seeing just how far he will go to recover his offspring. It is technically proficient, and boasts good performances from its male leads (Russo has less opportunity to shine than she deserves). It even seems to reach for moments of profundity, with baffling close-ups and pregnant pauses between villain Sinese and his lover Lili Taylor which seem to be trying to say something about love among the fallen. But though the diagetic world is engrossing and convincing within its own frames of reference, Howard is not cineaste enough to reach further than the surface and grip our hearts and souls. It never comes off the screen and makes you feel pity and terror for your own fragile humanity. It never makes you feel the rage, or the fear, or make you question if you would do the same things in the same situation, or how it would affect your world to have your child taken from you by a killer. In short, it never hits us where we live, only where we're sitting for the two hours it runs for.

Mel Gibson works very hard and is very good as the Airline owner whose moral corruption (and contrasting devotion to his family) has finally come back at him in the form of a kidnapper who realises that he'll buy his way out of trouble if he has to. Faced thusly twofold with his own inner demons, Gibson is driven into inevitable, violent conflict with his antagonist, leading to an unavoidable conclusion where one man must die at the hands of the other. Weighty and potentially disturbing material such as this is irresistible to any actor, and one of the real strengths of the film is the presence of darkness in its hero (unlike the general perfection evident in many Hollywood heroes these days - Harrison Ford being a particular offender in everything he's made in the past decade, including Air Force One and The Devil's Own). But it is rendered in broad plot strokes, coups and twists, which, while entertaining, only draw attention away from the real drama under the surface.

This is symptomatic and characteristic of Howard's direction, which is not do deny that these themes and ideas are there, merely that he is more interested in getting the film made and keeping the punters amused. Sinese's sinister use of H.G. Welles' tale of the Eloi and Morlocks from The Time Machine (interestingly referred to only as a movie rather than as a novel) begs the question of just who is who in the little drama, and as Gibson becomes more obsessive and out of control, he plumbs the depths of his own corruption in the name of what is right (saving his child). Yes, this study of human depravity is there, and it is played out to its proper conclusion (unlike in the Sean Connery vehicle Just Cause, or the original Cape Fear), but all the time the kinetic action and the demands of narrative invention are paramount, and Howard never dwells for quite long enough on Gibson's twitching countenance to sense the turmoil he feels is really inside all of us. We empathise with his situation, but we never really feel it; we don't have time. Howard urgently drives the story forwards and keeps piling on the twists until we reach the finale and watch the blood fly with little more involvement than spectators at the Colosseum.

Yet the surface pleasures are there, and Ransom works well as an action/adventure. It tells its story with all due efficiency and the technical credits are all up to spec. It passes the time with plenty of action, drama and safely-controlled chills, and viewers have the pleasure of watching a good cast working well. It's just a pity that what is obviously potentially penetrating material can only find its way to the screen via the demands of big box-office, and that directors like Howard must skirt around the edge but never cross it lest they fail to deliver the product and find no one wants to sell their next project.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.