Cheery Ron Howard isn't a director you'd associate with turning the screws until it hurts, but he makes a fair fist of this one. Ransom offers strong characters, neat set-pieces, convincing central performances and an intriguing plot - two men playing chicken with the life of a small boy (the curiously named Brawley Nolte, son of Nick). Ransom won't be lighting the world's blue touchpaper, but it's a good, solid movie - in other words, just what we've come to expect of the erstwhile Richie Cunningham.
Its main strength is easy to identify. Mel Gibson has made several pretty pennies from milking his maverick screen persona (Mad Max, Lethal Weapon), and Ransom doesn't keep that bankable unpredictability hidden for long. The more sweaty and stroppy Gibson gets, the more gripping the film becomes. Ransom's two best sequences are the initial bungled money drop, in which Mullen legs it across town at the whim of his mobile-phone-happy persecutor, and the film's pivotal scene, which sees the iron enter Mullen's soul: guessing that the kidnappers will be returning his son in a pint-sized box, he goes on live TV to turn the $2 million ransom into a bounty on the scoundrels' heads. The FBI think he's gone loop-the-loop, his wife nearly dies from shock, the news crews can't believe their luck... This is when Gibson's spiky, edgy presence comes into its own, his "man alone" recklessness generating more than enough tension to kick Ransom into gear.
But this is precisely when Howard pulls back. He seems uncomfortable with, or even uninterested in, giving us a straight thriller. Instead he lets Mel cool down a tad and wander off to do a little psychological exploration. Like kindly health visitors, we look in on how Kate Mullen (Rene Russo) is coping with the trauma, check whether the FBI team (led by the excellent Delroy Lindo) is up to the job, watch the news teams' coverage of the story, get the reactions of people in the street, even sit in on the kidnappers in their time of need... In fact, most of our time is spent with the child-snatchers - a gang of basket cases (see "What Now, Boss?") who look likely to self-destruct as a group almost from the moment we meet them. Yet, despite all this attention, little of value is revealed - save that they're almost guaranteed to crack at the slightest sign of pressure. This is sort of necessary for the plot (the more loose cannons there are, the more perilous things are for little Sean), but the fact that he's gathered together such a bunch of losers rather undermines the leader's credibility as a worthy foe.
Indeed, the Boss Baddy's psychological make-up is unnecessarily confusing - he's an unlikely mixture of cold-blooded tactical genius (able to second-guess the FBI at every turn) and fly-off-the-handle nutter. His motivation is bizarre, too, fluctuating between the usual greed 'n' envy and a frankly sniggerworthy so-called "philosophy" based on HG Wells' The Time Machine. This means that, despite some effective and scary scenes, he's ultimately a frustrating, half-formed character. We'd say who he is, by the way, if his identity weren't the first big twist the film throws at us. (If you really want to know, check out the backwards-written margin note to the right.)
Such multiplicity of focus is all very well in its place, and it's worked for Howard before: his most successful recent films have dealt with aggro between large groups of people working towards a common goal, be they at work (The Paper), at home (Parenthood) or both (Backdraft, Apollo 13). This approach is less appropriate for Ransom, though - the focus may be tighter than it was on those multi-character extravaganzas, but (to use the sphincter metaphor) it could do with clenching a lot harder.
The result is a film that's likely to generate mixed reactions. If you want a reasonably realistic, well-thought-out kidnap drama, Ron's your man; if you're after a full-scale duel between a crazed villain and the man he shouldn't have crossed (ie, most Harrison Ford films), Ron's somebody else's man. That said, you'll still have fun, because, when it goes for basic thriller kicks, Ransom really delivers. If only it did so more often.