There's a riveting sequence in Ransom, the new kidnap thriller directed by Ron Howard, that illustrates much of what's right and wrong in contemporary movies. The kidnappers have abducted the young son of Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), a wealthy airline tycoon, and his wife, Kate (Rene Russo). To deliver the $2 million that's been demanded in ransom, Tom jumps into a car with two suitcases full of cash. Speaking to the head kidnapper (Gary Sinise) over a cellular phone, he is led on an elaborately plotted wild-goose chase. (The kidnapper doesn't know that Tom is being tailed by police helicopters.) First, he's directed to a public swimming pool and ordered to dive into the water, thus short-circuiting any wire he might be wearing. Back in his car, he gets to hear the kidnapper's gonzo justification for his act a paranoid rant about how the world is like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, with the underground Morlocks wreaking vengeance on the elite, aboveground Eloi (i.e., rich folks like Tom). He then pulls off the road, loses phone contact, and realizes, with a shudder, that the kidnapper is driving in a nearby vehicle. Finally, he is led to the drop-off site, a deserted industrial mill.
And then? Then, you might expect, Tom would be ordered to leave the money and scram. But that's not what happens. Instead, one of the kidnapper's henchmen rides out of the shadows on a motorcycle, waves a gun in Tom's face like some back-alley mugger, and frantically demands the money. At which point the whole plan goes up in a hail of police bullets. But what sort of plan was this, exactly? What kind of criminal mastermind would devise this technologically choreographed road race, only to risk ending it with a face-to-face encounter between Tom and one of his own (hapless) men? Everything we were enjoying about this sequence, the cool ingenious logic of it, comes crashing apart in its awkward climax.
Ransom has some clever and exciting moments, but in scene after scene it teases you with gamesmanship only to pummel you with contrivance. Howard has made a domestic thriller in which Tom, the bourgeois family man grown complacent with wealth, has to get back in touch with his animal instinct. He has to descend to the kidnapper's level and become as ruthless as he is. That's a terrific subject for a thriller, but Howard is far better at domesticity than he is at ruthlessness. Early on, he tries to establish how high the stakes are by showing us what's happening inside the kidnappers' lair: the psychotic infighting, the Mullen boy handcuffed to a bare bed, with electric tape over his eyes. It's a real shock when we learn that Sinise is a police officer a cop gone rotten. But once we're inside the hideout, the activity isn't disturbing; it's hokey and movieish. Sinise's team, played by, among others, Lili Taylor and Liev Schreiber, seem inept to the point of harmlessness. It's hard to believe that Sinise, who has the brilliance to jam the FBI's computers and disguise his voice electronically, has assembled this crew of losers to hatch his perfect crime.
The implausibility doesn't come off as an accident. In Ransom, Howard is trying for a tone of tense malevolence he doesn't appear to be fully comfortable with. The movie is the latest entry in the ''friendly foe'' genre of The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire, with Gibson and Sinise engaged in an abstract battle of wills. (It makes you wonder what kidnappers did before cell phones.) But Ransom is patchy and episodic in a way that feels more like a weekly TV series; if anything, the stop-and-go rhythm seems meant to reassure the audience. Halfway through, the action heats up when Tom, realizing he's up against a madman, goes on the local TV news with $2 million in cash and announces that he's offering it not as ransom but as a reward. In effect, he's playing a game of chicken with Sinise upping the ante on his son's life. Gibson has always had a mesmerizing dark side (remember his vengefulness in Mad Max?), and when his rage catches fire, so does Ransom. But Howard then retreats, once again turning Tom into a domestic puppy who reassures his wife that everything's okay. See, folks, he's not such a reckless guy after all!
The script, by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, is a series of gambits that range from the hollow to the genuinely crafty. A subplot about Tom having bribed a union organizer is meant to establish that he always ''buys his way'' out of trouble; it comes off as a forced bit of pop psychology. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to see the Sinise character work both sides of the law. It's about time Gary Sinise cast off his owlish blandness and played a full-throttle creep; he's very good at it. But just as you're reveling in the sinister smoothness of his performance, he's undermined by a scene in which he has to show up at Gibson's apartment and tip his hand in a way that completely violates his control-freak character. That's Ransom for you: a diversion that never quite wins over your disbelief. B-