Before it turns into just another thriller, Ransom feels like a bracing change of pace for director Ron Howard. A hard, violent tale of kidnapping and revenge, it’s pretty grim stuff from a filmmaker known for his sunny outlook on life. But though the film’s emotions are raw, Ransom’s underlying concerns recall lighter Howard fare. Centered on a couple desperate to get their little boy back, it’s yet another Ron Howard film that revolves around family.
It’s hardly surprising that family ties run so deep throughout Howard’s work. After all, the guy got his start by playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. He starred in Happy Days for years. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, and he casts at least one family member in almost every film. He’s Hollywood’s official family man. But what’s impressive is how this pop auteur has worked that sensibility into so many mainstream formulas — from comic fantasy (Splash) to big-budget event (Apollo 13) to urban suspense (Ransom). No matter what else the movie is about, it always comes down to family. At least it does in Howard’s better work. When the human angle gets obscured by high-concept plot mechanics, a Ron Howard film can feel as emotionally empty as any other Hollywood product.
Few Howard films have felt as empty as Ransom, despite the solid efforts of Mel Gibson and Rene Russo as parents. Gibson, in fact, turns in one of his most complex performances as a self-made tycoon whose lifelong winning streak ends when his son is snatched in Central Park. Veering from terror to fury to despair, Gibson keeps us almost as wired. But then comes the moment when he loses us — when his character stops acting like a dad and starts acting like an action hero, taking his son’s rescue into his own hands. His blood-splattered slugfest with villain Gary Sinise may have had the crowds cheering in the aisles, but at home without the crowds, the aisles, and the theatrical aura of larger-than-life action, the scene feels phony, a cheat. It belongs in Lethal Weapon 4, not in the movie Ransom started out to be.
From a filmmaker whose most commercial instincts also tend to be his most heartfelt, Ransom’s crowd-pleasing plot twists seem awfully calculated. C