Even without his kilt, war paint and hair extensions, Mel Gibson is a braveheart to reckon with as the royally pissed-off father of a kidnapped child in Ransom. Here's a tension-packed thriller that will shake your head and rattle your brain, and not just because Ron Howard, the Mr. Happy Days director of Splash, Parenthood and Apollo 13, is dealing with child torture, gratuitous gore and people who call each other "motherfucker." The surprise is how well he pumps out the pulp. Moral watchdogs may not let off Howard with just a slap on the wrist. Blame Gibson for leading Opie into the heart of darkness.
After rolling in the mud and Oscar glory as 13th-century Scottish hero William Wallace, Gibson gravitates to present-day Manhattan as Tom Mullen, a former Vietnam combat pilot who built an airline — he does his own smarmy TV commercials — and reaps his rewards as a lionized king by living large in a penthouse castle with the perfect queen, Kate (the ever-elegant Rene Russo), and tow-headed princeling Sean (Brawley Nolte, 10, the nicely unactorish son of Nick). Though Tom is a devoted dad who doesn't cheat on his wife, he is also a hard-ass exec who is not above dirty deals or negotiating a bribe. Tom compartmentalizes his lives as a family man and a vain, ambitious scumbag until the kidnapping of his son pits him against himself.
It's rare to find a character this disturbingly ambiguous in a mainstream entertainment, and Gibson rips into his juicy role with force and feeling. Tom thinks he's smarter than the kidnappers; their ransom demand of $2 million is strictly low-balling. Against the wishes of FBI agent Lonnie Hawkins (Delroy Lindo), Tom goes on television, puts the cash on camera and tells the kidnappers that they won't see a dime. The money is now a bounty on their heads unless Sean is returned pronto.
It's a grandstanding risk, typical of Tom, only this time he is playing with the life of his son and finding that his wife, the police and most of the public hate him for it. Early indications that his gamble may have killed Sean drive Tom to a near-suicide leap off his park-view terrace. Gibson lets himself come apart emotionally in ways that most stars in his stratospheric salary and popularity range would never dare.
Adapted from a Glenn Ford movie that was released in 1956 (the year Gibson was born), Ransom never leaps as far from formula as its star. Still, the updated script by Alexander Ignon and Richard Price adds shrewd new twists, and the master Polish cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (Red) sustains an atmosphere of finely wrought menace from the moment Sean is snatched. A phone call instructs Tom to check his e-mail, which is illustrated with digitized images of Sean, who is blindfolded, handcuffed to a bed and scared to death.
On the surface, these unsettling scenes teeter on exploitation. But Howard hasn't betrayed his pledge to family values, he's just taken another approach. No way does Richie Cunningham grow up to be Quentin Tarantino. Howard never cuts himself off from compassion, even for the kidnappers whom Tom sees as "human garbage." They include a love-blinded woman (a vivid Lili Taylor), two loyal brothers (Liev Schreiber and Donnie Wahlberg) and an alcoholic computer wiz, played with comic perversity by Evan Handler. Gary Sinise is shockingly good as a cop who sees the world as a mirror of H.G. Wells' futuristic Time Machine, in which the mutant Moclocks rise from the sewers to prey on the rich, pretty Eloi. These are scrappy issues that the film could dodge. Slick thrills and the star's blue eyes are enough to make Ransom the fall's monster hit. Instead, Howard and Gibson stake out a Moclock side in all of us that won't be banished, not even by a happy ending. I'll be damned.