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Drawn by a Magnate

Ron Howard, the child actor turned movie director, has grossed a billion dollars exalting firemen and astronauts. There's no surprise in that: A guy who spent most of his youth on the make-believe sets of The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days has a better excuse than most people for clinging to the heroes eight-year-olds like best, and he certainly understands them. Backdraft and Apollo 13 were big hits among children of all ages. When Howard has seemingly turned his attention to the grownup world, he hasn't really turned it at all: Cocoon, with its magically rejuvenated senior citizens, is a celebration of youth regained rather than wisdom hard-earned; Parenthood, which holds a brief for the kid inside every father, might have been better titled Arrested Childhood.

At first glimpse, the protagonist of Howard's big, loud new movie Ransom looks like something new for him--and for us. Self-assured Tom Mullen is a dashing entrepreneur who has parlayed his early days as a Vietnam fighter pilot into his own scrappy and successful airline, his own series of slick TV spots, his own business-world myth gazing forth from the covers of Time and Forbes. Better-looking than Donald Trump, two feet taller than Ross Perot (this is Mel Gibson, after all), Mullen is the New American Cowboy. Instead of the wide-open spaces, he's got a swell Manhattan penthouse you could play football in and a sleek wife (Rene Russo) who does all the right charity work. Rather than a six-shooter, Tom's got appealing discount fares, moxie and a zillionaire free marketeer's requisite contempt for labor unions.

In other words, he's a real grownup.
Or is he? This could be an intriguing new idea, the businessman/hero come out of the shadows, but in the hands of co-writers Richard Price and Alexander Ignon and director Howard, there's something dreamily infantile about the figure of Tom Mullen and something hopelessly unreal about the movie's views of both wealth and commerce. When a deranged New York cop (Gary Sinise) and his unruly gang kidnap Mullen's young son (Brawley Nolte) and demand a $2 million ransom, an FBI team led by Delroy Lindo tells Dad to pay up: Do that, and seven times out of ten the kid comes home in one piece.

But Tom doesn't like those odds any better than he likes the FBI, which has snooped into his own shady dealings of late, or the vulturous media, which has hounded him to distraction. They're both popular targets these days, a fact that has not escaped the moviemakers while crafting their nouveau capitalist hero. So, then. What does Tom Mullen do? Why, what any self-respecting, up-by-his-bootstraps maverick businessman would do. After the kidnapper pulls a little double-cross, Mullen decides he won't get his son back without a bold ploy. So he disses the feds, ignores his angry wife and turns the tables by going on TV and refusing to pay the ransom. Instead, he offers it as a public reward. Thus does our right-thinking, union-baiting, FBI-agent-punching airline mogul apply the tools of the marketplace to personal crisis: It's the leveraged buyout elevated to a dangerous art.

Preposterous? Well, yes. Enjoyable entertainment? Absolutely. Ransom is loosely based on the 1956 Glenn Ford picture of the same name, but this version is really a kind of Cape Fear for Republicans, in which business acumen and two big suitcases stuffed with cash serve as the indispensable virtues for a man whose family is threatened with death and destruction. A very odd concept, no? The screenplay is alternately paint- by-numbers and foolishly outlandish, and Sinise's slimy Jimmy Shaker is strictly Another Angry White Male, one who dolls up his familiar working-class resentment of the rich by recounting the us-and-them plot of the old sci-fi classic The Time Machine.

But if there's one thing Ron Howard has absorbed since beginning his acting career at age four, it's how to move action along, whether he's pointing a rocket ship at the moon in Apollo 13 or showing us how to stop the presses in The Paper. In Ransom, there's a terrific confrontation between good and bad in a stone quarry, some riveting argument between Jimmy Shaker and his co-conspirators (Lili Taylor, Liev Schreiber, etc.) and, to top things off, a chase and shoot-'em-up in New York's high-rent district that sets a new standard for such things. Meanwhile, tabloid-bashers will love the scene in which Big Tom, en route to meet his tormentors, slams on the brakes of his $80,000 Jaguar, opens the trunk, grabs a tire iron and smashes the windshield of a TV van in hot pursuit. Our guy may have sinned recently--he's got a hint of Ivan Boesky in him, too--but don't these unwashed lowlifes from the boob tube know how much dough he's got in the bank?

In the end, is there anything alarming in this notion of businessman as avenging angel? Probably not. Unless you're a Chinese communist, you'll likely find it amusing at worst and uplifting at best. On the other hand, we trust Ransom will not signal an entire crop of flannel-suited movie heroes--Clint Eastwood, perhaps, as a swashbuckling supermarket magnate who saves the world's supply of green peppers; Kevin Costner as the renegade automaker who finally makes car clocks keep good time. Who knows? Maybe there would be real tension in a movie about Bill Gates reinventing the world's computer software. Early on, the villain could put a virus in Bill's game of Donkey Kong, and then...oh, forget it. Mel Gibson may have a lot of clout with the stockholders, but Wall Street probably won't supplant Dodge City anytime soon in the realm of movie heroism.

Ransom. Screenplay by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon. Directed by Ron Howard. With Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo and Delroy Lindo.

 
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