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Mel as Mogul

Gibson's star power drives Ransom

Fresh from his epic adventures in the Oscar-winning Braveheart, Mel Gibson returns to the 20th century as a somewhat less heroic figure in Ransom. Under the vigorously efficient direction of Ron Howard, Gibson stars as Tom Mullen, a charismatic self-made man who isn't above a bit of bribery here and there when it comes to protecting his airline company. The film doesn't indicate whether he also made a few under-the-table contributions to his favorite political party. But you get the feeling that Mullen is the sort of cover-all-bases type who would send the same amount to Democrats, Republicans and any other group that might be represented on a Senate investigating committee.

Mullen is a shrewd businessman, a tough negotiator and, judging from what we see of a TV commercial he has commissioned, a smooth-talking, self-promoting sharpie. But this conniving tycoon also is a genuinely loving family man who enjoys flirting with his beautiful wife and doting over his young son. Sure, he paid a hefty sum to a union chief to ward off a crippling strike against his Endeavor Airlines. And, yes, that same union chief is now trying to make a deal with prosecutors by rolling over on Mullen. But, hey, he's really a nice guy, every bit as engaging and attractive as -- well, Mel Gibson.

It requires a considerable exertion of star power on Gibson's part, but Mullen actually comes across as a surprisingly affable and sympathetic fellow, even before the screenwriters pull the rug out from under him. So much so, in fact, that by the time the filmmakers do get around to wiping that self-satisfied grin off his face, we are sufficiently primed to root for him.

Ransom is loosely based on a 1956 movie written by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, which in turn was adapted from a well-received television drama of the early 1950s. For this newfangled version, screenwriters Richard Price (Clockers, Sea of Love) and Alexander Ignon add a touch of moral ambiguity and some high-tech gadgetry to the mix. (Is there some kind of bylaw in the Writers Guild of America contract that stipulates all contemporary thrillers must showcase laptop computers?) But the basic plot is the same: A rich guy's son is kidnapped, the rich guy refuses to pay the ransom and all hell breaks loose.

At first, Mullen is more than willing to pay the $2 million demanded by the scruffy villains who kidnap his little boy. But during the drop-off of the ransom, a fatal mistake is made, and the kidnapper assigned to pick up the loot is shot dead by an FBI marksman. The surviving kidnappers are quick to reissue their ransom demand. By that time, however, Mullen is absolutely certain that, even if he does turn over the money, he will never see his son alive again. So, like the bold businessman he is, Mullen makes an audacious counterproposal. Instead of forking over $2 million to the kidnappers, he will pay the same amount as a bounty to anyone responsible for their capture.

Gibson is at his best while playing characters who are pushed to the brink of sanity by inner demons and tumultuous events. In The Bounty, the flawed but fascinating remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, he offered a fascinating portrait of Fletcher Christian as a mutineer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In Ransom, a slick and suspenseful thriller, he ups the emotional ante by playing Mullen as a high-stakes gambler who very nearly implodes under the pressure of trying to sound confident while betting his son's life. Gibson is extraordinarily good at simultaneously conveying terror and resolve. There are moments in Ransom when, in close-up, his expression is like a double-exposure photograph, revealing the thoughts behind the words and the agonizing doubt behind the brash certainty. There may be better and more versatile actors at work in movies today. But it is difficult to think of anyone who would be more impressive, or more affecting, while bringing all of the aspects of Tom Mullen into such razor-sharp focus.

As Kate, Mullen's understandably anxious wife, Rene Russo has a few high-strung moments of her own, and she handles them very well. Naturally, Kate has serious misgivings about her husband's desperate measures. Indeed, at one point, she attempts to maneuver around him, to pay the ransom on her own. To her credit, however, Russo plays Kate as every bit as intelligent and strong-willed as Mullen. When she tries to undermine his plan, she doesn't seem at all hysterical or treacherous. She simply seems like a loving mother who will do anything -- even defy a husband she suspects is temporarily insane -- to save her son.

The identity of the mastermind behind the kidnapping is supposed to come as a surprise. As it turns out, the revelation isn't surprising at all, but I will play fair. After all, the people who did the coming-attractions trailer for Ransom were decent enough not to spill the beans. Such discretion is increasingly rare these days, and it deserves respect. Suffice it to say that, in dramatizing the edgy give-and-take between Mullen and the chief bad guy, the filmmakers are able to add a layer of class-consciousness to their melodrama. This is a clever touch. Also amusing, if a tad heavy-handed, is the film's depiction of print and electronic journalists as bothersome pests who occasionally can be exploited to good effect.

The first-rate supporting cast includes Brawley Nolte as Mullen's terrified son, Delroy Lindo as the FBI agent in charge of the case, Lili Taylor as the most sullen of the kidnappers and Gary Sinise as a police detective who notices suspicious behavior in a convenience store. Sinise figures prominently in what might be called the third act of Ransom. This section of the film, while reasonably suspenseful, seems more than a little anticlimactic. Even so, it is never dull. Because even here, there's always the chance that Mel Gibson will reach an emotional meltdown at any moment.

Ransom.
Directed by Ron Howard. With Mel Gibson and Rene Russo.
Rated R.
121 minutes.

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