Touchstone Pictures // 1996 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // April 21st, 2004
Someone is Going to Pay.
Since I have fond memories of Ransom from when it first came out, I was excited to have a chance to sit down and watch it again, and the newly released Special Edition from Touchstone Pictures seemed to be the best way to do that. Fans of the film who have been waiting for this edition may want to read carefully before they rush out to buy it, though, as the release has several serious flaws.
Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson, Braveheart, Payback) is the president of a small but successful airline. His world completely falls apart when his son is kidnapped and a $2 million ransom is demanded. Tom and his wife Kate (Rene Russo, The Thomas Crown Affair) are also afraid that the kidnapping may be connected to a scandal involving Tom Mullen and a man who claims to have been paid off by Tom in order to save his airline.
When Tom and Kate involve the FBI against the kidnapper's wishes and things start to go wrong, the pressure starts to build for everyone involved. Things go from bad to worse when Tom makes an unconventional choice that could mean the death of his son.
The good news is that Ransom is a great movie, maybe even better than I had remembered. While director Ron Howard has had his share of misfires in the recent past (cough*The Grinch*cough), this film stands as a reminder that he used to be willing to take risks and deliver the unexpected.
On the surface, Ransom seems like a dozen other action thrillers released in the past few years. Kidnapped children, car chases, shootouts...stuff we have all seen before. There are several things that set this film apart, though, raising it above expectations.
For one thing, this is a movie just as interested in the characters and their decisions as in the progression of events. Each time a character makes a choice, the other characters have to respond, and the tension of the film continually rises because of it. The suspense works because all of the characters remain believable while still showing themselves capable of doing unexpected things.
To pull this off, a solid cast is required. Fortunately, Ron Howard assembled some remarkable actors to flesh out the characters in the film. Mel Gibson does a great job carrying Ransom. Gibson's Tom Mullen is not the infallible action hero that appears in so many films. Instead, he is a flawed person trying to do his best in horrible circumstances. The script calls for Tom to make several choices that would seem ludicrous. Because Gibson has done a good job setting up his character, however, I found myself believing in the reasons that he gives for these choices. He is a hero you'll root for, but still find yourself questioning at some moments. Rene Russo and Delroy Lindo put in great performances as well, keeping the tension running high in the Mullen household.
The supporting performances are equally impressive. The kidnappers are played by a solid group of young actors, and their ensemble work is close to perfect. Clark (Liev Schreiber, The Sum of All Fears), Cubby (Donnie Wahlberg, The Sixth Sense), Maris (Lili Taylor, High Fidelity), and Miles (Evan Handler, Natural Born Killers) all respond to the pressure of the situation differently, which makes their scenes exciting and varied. Of course, the kidnapping scenes wouldn't work at all without good work from Brawley Nolte as Sean. Child actors are often great when they need to be cute, but are rarely compelling in serious roles. Here, Nolte does a great job, and his performance never pulled me out of the reality of the situation.
The other reason that Ransom works so well is the excellent script. Action thrillers contain lots of twists and turns as a rule, usually of a kind we have all seen a dozen times before. The twists seem remarkably fresh here, though, supported by the believable dialogue and exceptional performances. We are surprised because the characters are as unpredictable as real people would be in a crisis, not because some writer tried too hard to be clever.
Even without the surprises and an action-packed second half, Ransom would make a compelling crime drama. The scenes with the kidnappers are deeply disturbing. This sets them apart from similar sequences in other action films, which hesitate to show a child uncomfortable, let alone suffering. Ransom's boldness in this regard is both a strength and a weakness. It's a strength because the surprises and action seem to have more weight due to the reality of the situation backing them up. At times, though, it seems to be too dark a tone for the genre, which may turn some viewers off. Still, this makes the thrill-laden ending (which includes one of the all-time best bad guy death sequences) far more satisfying than it would have been at the end of a generic action flick.
Wait, you say. Sounds like a great movie, but there's been nothing about the disc yet. Well, that's where the bad news comes in.
This disc contains the same video transfer as the original release, which is not a good thing. It is non-anamorphic, a condition no longer acceptable for a release labeled "special" on the front cover. It's an ugly transfer, too, which makes matters even worse. The colors are muted, the print shows damage and grain, and there's enough edge enhancement to choke a goat. Some scenes start to look better by the end, but not by enough. In a time when most studios are remastering their catalogue titles and releasing them at very attractive prices, this transfer is an embarrassment.
The sound is better, though pretty lackluster for the most part. The dialogue is always clear, but the soundstage is relegated to the front channels the majority of the time. In a couple of scenes, the rear speakers jump into life, but the music is never as full as it should be.
The commentary track by director Ron Howard is mostly entertaining. At the beginning we get a lot of "There's my wife!" and "Mel Gibson is a good actor" kinds of statements, but once Howard gets past that, he has interesting things to say about the choices that were made during production. His comments are more content oriented than technically oriented, which I think is a good thing.
The rest of the special features are pretty generic. Interviews with the cast come in the form of a featurette, entitled What Would You Do? I have no idea why they called it that. The information overlaps with the commentary track at times, but it is better than many of the brief featurettes we are used to seeing. While everyone is clearly proud of the work they have accomplished, they are clear and honest about their experiences working on the set. At a short 15 minutes, it does not discuss any issues in much depth, but it's worth watching once.
The deleted scenes, displayed in 1.33:1 full frame, are pretty pointless. None of them add any depth to the characters or add anything to the story. Like most deleted scenes, they are snippets left on the editing floor for a reason.
Rounding out the features is a collection of clips of the actors and Howard clowning around between takes. While it is interesting to see what the cast and crew do to keep the tone light behind the scenes of such a dark film, the results aren't very funny from an outsider's perspective.
While the special features are worth a watch, I don't think they offer enough reason to upgrade from the original disc. In fact, nothing about this disc stands out, except maybe the shiny cover. It's a shame, really, because Ransom deserves better treatment than this.
If you have yet to pick up Ransom on DVD, you may as well grab this version, because it doesn't look like a better edition is coming out anytime soon. People with a good home theater setup may want to just give it a rent, though, because the transfer simply doesn't live up to current expectations for DVD. Those who own the old edition have no reason to upgrade.
Touchstone Pictures is ordered to pay restitution to Ron Howard for treating his excellent film with such disregard. They are also held in contempt for calling this DVD a special edition. Everyone else is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Director Ron Howard
* Featurette: What Would You Do?
* Deleted Scenes
* Featurette: Between Takes