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Sinners in need of a ransom

Movies | Mel Gibson stars in a Ron Howard film that explores every parent's worst nightmare

Issue: "Modern martyrs," Nov. 30, 1996

Those who would go to see Ron Howard's latest thriller should hire only their most trusted babysitter--or, better yet, fly grandmother in. But it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see this film for its entertainment value. Ransom is a horror film made more horrible by the fact that it plays on a parent's greatest fear. But what makes this movie bad is what makes it good: Audiences are faced with the big fat reality that people are sinful--even depraved.

Mr. Howard and his screenwriters have consistently presented films that fit the bill for "entertainment value." Not content with cheap thrills, however, Mr. Howard's films (Cocoon, Apollo 13) always attempt to dig a little deeper into the human condition and examine their characters' fears and flaws as well as their triumphs. From "everyone's hero," Tom Mullen, played by Mel Gibson, through the cabal of kidnappers, headed by Gary Sinise as the sinister Jimmy Shaker, Ransom holds the line and no one, least of all the audience, gets off easy.

Mullen is a millionaire-by-his-own-bootstraps owner of a successful airline company. His wife, Kay (Renee Russo), is the perfect corporate wife who knows how to balance small talk with big responsibilities. They adore but occasionally overlook their son, Sean (Brawley Nolte), who is eager to grow up and be like his father. What Sean and Kay don't know is that dad is guilty of a crime that he has publicly denied. The FBI has been investigating him, found nothing, and sent the other party to jail. What dad doesn't know is that Sean has been targeted for kidnapping and himself for extortion.

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When the preteen, in an eerie split second, vanishes right out from under his parents' supervision, Tom and Kay are plunged into every parent's worst nightmare. Ironically, it is the FBI to which Tom and Kay must turn for help. Delroy Lindo as Agent Lonnie Hawkins has the job of asking Tom for the whole truth and hearing his confession. Tom has a caustic catharsis when he confronts the jailed man to learn if the kidnapping was arranged for revenge. He comes to a profound conclusion: having ruined one man for financial gain, he himself is the object of another man's same sinful purpose.

Gary Sinise really must be noted for his personification of Tom's antagonist. His cold-blooded renegade policeman is more than an adequate match for Mel Gibson's intense analysis of human nature. The villain manipulates his henchmen to carry out the scheme with vicious intelligence and technical precision. His dialogue reflects a Marxist rage against corporate oppressors and delivers an in-your-face confrontation of Tom's sin: "You paid off to save your airline. Why won't you pay off to save your son?"

Audiences should be aware that this film presents incidents of child abuse, beatings, and violent bloodshed. Nonetheless, the storytelling moves quickly, presents only what is essential, and in the process shatters several Hollywood-isms. Money cannot redeem a life; evil lives within the human heart; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are all in need of a ransom.

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