Morlocks & Eloi: Ron Howard’s RANSOM (1996)

Ron Howard and Mel Gibson's kidnapping thriller is a gory, big budget relic from when Hollywood actually made action blockbusters for adults.

Solo is coming to theaters later this month. To celebrate the latest Star Wars installment, we're running a month-long appreciation of Ron Howard's best movies. The second installment in this mini-series: the 1996 morally murky crime thriller, Ransom...


"You ever see that movie The Time Machine? It's the land of the future, right? And there's only two types of people in the world now: the Morlocks and the Eloi. The Elois, they live aboveground. They wear togas, they're all blonde, and they eat grapes and shit like that. It's the Garden of Eden up there: basically everybody lies around and listens to harp music. Now, the Morlocks, they live underground. Big, hairy, ugly suckers like you wouldn't wish on an ape. They're down there with all this machinery, doing all the labor. They're making sure the Elois have enough food and togas..."

Ron Howard's Ransom starts with a very simple image: an ambulance screaming down a New York City street, sirens blaring in black and white. With a quick camera swing, we're up on the rooftop as the screaming alarms fade into the city’s chaos, the frame switching to color as we join a party being thrown by Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson), the festivity already well in progress. Tom and his wife Kate (Rene Russo) are sugar on the crust of this Big Apple pie; Mullen a self-made airline millionaire, his better half a board member for the metropolis’ Science Fair. They've got a cute son named Sean (Brawley Nolte), whom they love with all their hearts. There's no sickness or sirens up at this level. They're safe, secure, and happy together; the insular world of the powerful elite. 

But down below, some shady characters are setting up shop in a nearby row home. Soundproofing foam is taped to the walls, and a ratty bed has restraints attached to its metal rails. Tattoos dot hands and arms, and the moment Sean spots one of the caterers (Lili Taylor) accidentally flashing neck ink back at the party's bar, we know he's destined for this pit of heavy metal filled hell. Howard is setting the stage for a dime store-ready procedural, allowing Polish cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (Three Colors: Red ['94]) to prowl the dank corridors just as easily as he does the swanky soiree. Visually, they’re letting us know that this is how dangerous it is once you step out of the penthouses and leave its trusty security behind. Just like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine – which these kidnappers' leader, Det. Jimmy Shaker (Gary Sinise), directly references – there are Morlocks and Eloi in this very tangible universe, and every once in a while, the workers rise up and snatch one of their superiors in order to satiate themselves.

While the original story for Ransom is derived from a '54 episode of The United States Steel Hour television anthology (titled "Fearful Decision") – which was then adapted by a credited Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum into the Glenn Ford-starring crime drama Ransom! ('56) – co-screenwriter Richard Price feels like the main influence on this new take’s murky morality, painting Tom as a guy who definitely did the work to earn himself his millions, but also greased the wheels and looked the other way when crooked business associates went to jail in order for him to expand his empire. Just like Price's streetwise paperback thrillers (Bloodbrothers and Clockers), the movie isn't afraid to view every player through a working class lens, while also recognizing that, like the swindlers who stole Tom's kid, every blue boy working to get Sean back would bend or break the rules if it meant switching financial positions with Mullen for even a few years. 

Except for Agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo), who knows that Tom is more than likely guilty of every crime the FBI has investigated him for over the last three years. However, his team is here to ensure that Sean is returned with each blonde hair on his head intact, regardless of what they think of this somewhat pompous everyman-done-good. Lindo's Hawkins is an incredibly calming presence whenever he's trying to reassure Tom and Kate that everything's going to be fine, as long as they do what he says. But the extraordinary character actor also balances this almost Zen-like approach with eyes that recognize there may be no controlling this grieving, privileged couple, especially the loose-cannon father. Guilt is pushing Tom to participate and put himself in harm's way at every turn, and Lonnie is a consummate professional; a judicial funnel through which he hopes this man will filter his blatant acts of atonement. 

Though it's hard to imagine the works of Italian exploitation maestros such as Fernando di Leo influencing a Ron Howard blockbuster, much of Ransom almost plays like an American take on poliziotteschi. Only where those movies often showed active disdain toward their criminal subjects, Price and Alexander Ignon’s screenplay is layered with intense empathy for the small time professionals trying to score a big payday. Gary Sinise's alpha dog intensity is faintly tempered by his protective relationship with Taylor's abused, impatient den mother, still haunted by dreams of indignities she suffered as a little girl. Clark Barnes (Liev Schreiber) shares a similar bond with his little brother Cubby (Donnie Wahlberg), who can't stand to see the little boy they've taken in any sort of pain. Rounding the crew out is Miles (Evan Handler), their drunken tech expert, whose inebriated outbursts seem three sips of cheap vodka away from calling out the absurdity of their economic scheme. Seeing how we spend as much time with the kidnappers as we do their targets, an ample amount of effort is poured into making them complex human beings.

Above all these stellar performances – including a slimy, sneering, career-best Sinise – Ransom belongs to Mel Gibson, who delivers one of the most multi-faceted turns of his megastar career. Gibson's big blue eyes are constantly at work, reading rooms as Tom wrestles with the fact that every move he's making is possibly wrong, and that the sins he's committed in the name of business have finally come back to bite him in the ass. At the same time, there's this volcano of angry strength that wells inside of Mullen, which boils over in the movie's most iconic moments. He got where he is because he was never going to be pushed around, and knows how to deal with "little men" like the ones currently trying to hurt his family. There's a reason Gibson screaming "gimme back my son!" so thoroughly penetrated the pop lexicon following the movie's '96 release: he's transmuting a mixture of rage, panic, love and crushing guilt, all into a macho act of defiance, and we savor each ounce of this Molotov cocktail.  

Like Mullen's fury, every time violence erupts in Howard's film, it does so with rocking impact. Blood squibs spray dark crimson across the grimy sidewalks during shoot outs, and an ATV chase even ends with an artery being punctured by an FBI sniper's bullet. Surrounding it all is a rather distinct portrait of Giuliani-era NYC, as Howard’s in love with the texture of the city's Manhattan high-rises, blue collar homes, and chilly, cracked streets during the Fall season. Much how Chicago became a character in his bombastic Backdraft ('91), Howard lets us know how this melting pot feels about Tom's decision to face his family's attackers head on. “Joe on the street” news broadcasts shout opinions, all while James Horner's melodramatic horns and strings rise and fall. It's supreme pulp theatrics, threatening to spin out of control at any moment, but Howard maintains control over each scene, playing the audience's emotions like a fiddle. 

The mark of a truly great journeyman director is his ability to traverse various genres while consistently delivering a thoroughly sturdy product. Ron Howard crafts Ransom with a remarkable eye for crime thriller aesthetics, keeping the suspenseful beats hanging just long enough, before delivering incredibly satisfying payoffs. Every twist and turn is tightly plotted and executed, seasoned with a nasty streak that we don't get too often in our big budget entertainment these days. With Ransom, Howard is again operating in a purely populist mode, but does so without sacrificing any of its genre's gritty purity. That's quite the feat, and further proof that he's one of the steadiest pros Hollywood cinema has ever seen.