Ransom_2As a director, Ron Howard must aspire to be a baby-boomer Howard Hawks: he skips from genre to genre, usually not stumbling — but not making much of a mark, either. He has discipline but no particular temperament or vision. Solid and competent as they are, Howard’s movies are polite guests in our consciousness, never daring to mess up the rug. And in a thriller about kidnapping and parental terror, that’s not good.

Ransom, the surefire hit starring Mel Gibson, starts out as a hard-driving nail-biter. Airline magnate Tom Mullen (Gibson) enjoys the high life without guilt. He has a beautiful wife (Rene Russo, who’s underused) and doting son (Brawley Nolte). Now watch it all fall down. The son is whisked away by scruffy hoods who want to soak Tom for $2 million. The parents become hysterical and call in the FBI.

And the movie, quite unavoidably, becomes Guys With Phones. I’m serious — I’ve never seen another mainstream Hollywood movie so dependent on zooms into ringing phones. Tom spends much screen time negotiating, pleading, and arguing with the head kidnapper, renegade cop Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise). There’s more talk than the wispy story can bear, and before long it collapses. Hyperactive yet uneventful, Ransom is one of the most unthrilling thrillers imaginable.

And yet …. If there’s one theme that links some of Ron Howard’s recent work (Parenthood, The Paper, Apollo 13 to a small extent), it’s anxiety about threats to the ideal family. Ransom is a horror movie for affluent parents, and at times it works fairly well as a study of a husband and father cracking under pressure. Tom is very rudely emasculated by the faceless, jeering kidnappers who resent his fortune. He does stupid, grandstanding things because he doesn’t know what else to do.

Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise (oh, please) were also on Howard’s short list to play Tom Mullen, but I doubt we’d have bought them in the role. Ford would have been too glum, Cruise too callow. Mel Gibson specializes in heroes who can be rubbed raw and driven around the bend, and Ransom gives him a work-out. In one moment I won’t forget, Tom seems to devolve into a wailing infant after he thinks his son has been killed. Gibson goes naked here the way Jack Nicholson did in The Crossing Guard.

But then it’s back to the rusty mechanics of the thriller. The script was largely written by Richard Price (Clockers), who has never seemed comfortable with this kind of point-A-to-point-B stuff, and it shows in the amazingly lumpy climax. Price wants to humanize the kidnappers, and we see tensions between Jimmy and his girlfriend (Lili Taylor). But Price can’t flesh them out, and we don’t know why Jimmy wants $2 million. He’s just a boogeyman scaring the nice rich people.

I can marginally recommend Ransom because Gibson does sharp work, and Sinise and Taylor find some of the truth that Price and Howard neglect to include. But what we have here are (A) desperate, violent kidnappers and (B) people arguing about how the ransom should be handled. There’s a great movie in such material. That movie, by the way, was Fargo.

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