Rich Man's Burden

Directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon. Starring Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinise, and Lili Taylor. At area theaters.

At the beginning of Ransom, Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), the up-from-his-bootstraps CEO of Endeavor Airlines, hosts a party for his friends in his swank East Side penthouse to watch his new promotional video. With his wife and child shooting him adoring looks, Mullen is such a cocky capitalist that, of course, we're primed for his fall.

So are the filmmakers. Wasting no time, director Ron Howard crosscuts between Mullen's shindig and some in-close drilling and sawing in a grungy apartment -- something bad is in the works. Kidnappers!

Milked throughout is the contrast between the gilt-edged ritziness of Mullen's digs and the kidnappers' flophouse. Milked too is the contrast in "families." Mullen's wife, Kate (Rene Russo), is a sleek piece of work -- she looks like she came into the world gift-wrapped. Their only child, Sean (Brawley Nolte), perhaps 10 or 11, looks like a fresh-faced Wheaties kid -- until you realize it's also the look you see on the missing-child photos on milk cartons.

The kidnappers who abduct Sean during a science fair in Central Park have their own brand of togetherness. Clark (Liev Schreiber) is a brainy, dissolute ex-con who looks after his rumply brother, Cubby (Donnie Wahlberg, from New Kids on the Block). Miles (Evan Handler) is a bald computer hacker who swigs booze and emits gurgly cynical bons mots. Maris (Lili Taylor), who we first see working the kitchen for Mullen's party -- we know she's bad because she has a tattoo on her neck -- is a glum ragamuffin. Their ringleader, and Maris' lover, is Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), a decorated cop working the wrong side of the law. Shaker is literally good cop-bad cop.

They're like a sitcom family gone to seed: Scooping takeout Chinese food straight from the carton, razzing each other about how tough they are, they at first seem a preposterous match for Mullen and the FBI team, headed by Delroy Lindo's Lonnie Hawkins. But Shaker is fueled by more than greed. (He wants 2 million bucks in 48 hours). He's enraged by Mullen's privileges. Hawkins encourages Mullen to pay up -- to treat the whole affair as a simple business transaction. But he doesn't know that Shaker is after blood. It's not business as usual, and Mullen, who knows business, spots this before anyone else.

Howard and his screenwriters, Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, are trying to play both sides of the law too. They hook the audience with melodramatic whammies, but they also feign high-mindedness. They want Ransom to have a mind when most of us would just settle for a body. We don't need Ron Howard and company to lob civics lessons at us; we don't need their paltry points about the crassness of the media or the crassness of New York. If we wanted that we'd rent Dog Day Afternoon. What we want is a good thrill ride.

The finger-pointing in this film is done with a crooked finger. Once the word is out that Mullen's kid's been swiped, the media circus begins, and we are made to feel that these uncaring clods are jeopardizing Sean's chances. But when Mullen ends up using the media to turn the tables on the kidnappers, suddenly they're the good guys (or at least the not-so-bad guys).

This hypocrisy is, of course, purest Hollywood: You hate them until you need them.

There's also the manner in which this film plays both sides of the capitalist-pig issue -- again, purest Hollywood. Mullen is due for his comeuppance because he's too high on the hog, but since he's a self-made pasha, he's one step above the rich twits with inherited wealth. We can't have disdain for Mullen because -- even though it's revealed early on that he sent an innocent man (Dan Hedaya) to jail in order to bribe his way out of a union problem -- we're supposed to want to be Mullen. (The film's dumbest touch: His wife never suspected the bribe.) Mullen has the capitalist cojones that made this country great; his unscrupulousness is part of his allure. And since he genuinely loves his family, he has the proper priorities for a movie hero. (None of the kidnappers have any kids, of course. None are married.) Ransom ends up having it both ways with Mullen. It satisfies our desire to see the favored rich brought low, but it also exalts them.

The screenwriters have loosely based the film on a 1956 Glenn Ford programmer also called Ransom. But why hasn't anybody remade Kurosawa's great kidnapping thriller High and Low? In that film, the kidnappers, attempting to abduct the son of a rich industrialist (played by Toshiro Mifune), end up mistakenly abducting the son of his valet. Kurosawa fiddles with the same class-conscious themes as Ransom, but without Ron Howard's heavy hand. It is a beautifully engineered contraption, and the police dragnet is delineated down to the last thread.

In Ransom, the FBI machinations are confusing; so are the kidnappers'. The confusion seems inadvertent -- bad plotting. There isn't a lot of sense in the scene where, hearing a gunshot over the telephone, Sean's parents and the FBI automatically assume the boy's been killed. But the scene is there for a reason: to give us Mullen's aria of grievance on his rooftop overlooking Central Park.

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