Director Ron Howard, while seemingly capable of making a watchable film in the Hollywood system, seems dead set on upholding the blazing torch of family values. One only has to glance over his filmography (Parenthood, Backdraft) to realize that, for the most part, Howard seems inclined to make movies where the conflict revolves around the family unit in jeopardy and its eventual reunion. Ol’ Richie, it seems, has a beatific vision of a blissful Happy Days still banging around in his subconscious, and it wants out.

With his latest film, Ransom, this theme of the nuclear family surviving intrusion continues. Following Tom Mullen (Mel Gibson) and his family’s cathartic trial by fire via the hostage taking of their son Sean, the movie capitalizes on wanton manipulation of its audience’s emotions. Beginning with an all stops out blitz of family harmony, to the unsurprisingly creaky boat that the clan becomes after the removal of one member, one gets the unpleasant feeling that buttons are being pressed - hard. While it’s fine to have a film lead the audience somewhere, it’s another matter to have your butt kicked down the road by a domineering tour leader.

One glaring example in many is the way that the film’s characterizations quickly turn monochromatic. Mullen and his wife Kate (Rene Russo) are prime examples of a pristine, buffed couple, looking for all the world like they just stepped out of a TV ad for Club Med, while all the bad guys are either lame gangsta wannabes (one played coincidentally enough by NKOTB chump Donnie Walberg), drunken computer geeks, or scowling cops (Gary Sinise) gone nasty. Still, in response to the Ransom, Gibson’s Mullen turns just as evil as the kidnappers, only here, everything is set up for an audience to root him on as he babbles, drools and eventually falls to their level to reunite his family. It’s really hard to believe that the story was by James Bond writer Richard Maibaum, and scripted by acclaimed novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money).

Still, Gary Sinise tries his best with what he has to work with, and brilliant actress Lili Taylor (I Shot Andy Warhol) puts in a too brief supporting appearance. Unfortunately, with the film’s uneven plotting and cloying over-emoting, not much exists to keep the interest level up. Coupled with some annoyingly shaky point-of-view camerawork reminiscent of TV’s NYPD Blue (who thinks this stuff ‘puts you in the action?’) and the exasperation rises to an overwhelming level.

To boot, Ransom features the worst yelled line since Kurt Russell howled, “That’s my brother in there, goddamit!” in Backdraft. Of course, this can only be the Melster’s “Give me back my son!”, which every person imitated when I told them I have to review this movie. That, sadly, was the most entertaining thing connected to Ransom. Do yourself a favour and watch Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang instead. It’s got all the elements of Ransom, but won’t leave you feeling like you were just taken against your will by the movies.

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