Money For Nothing

UNLIKE MOST RUGGED, SQUARE-jawed action-hero movie stars, Mel Gibson doesn't play it cool. He's the least afraid of showing wild emotion (think of his suicidal ravings in ""Lethal Weapon,'' his rants in ""The Bounty''), and in Ransom he gets to emote like mad--after all, a kidnapper has swiped this rich airline executive's 7-year-old son (Brawley Nolte). He's furious, concerned and guilty, too, because he thinks (wrongly) that the extortionist is motivated by revenge for a dark business dealing in his past.

Ron Howard's glossy thriller delivers pretty much what the generic title implies: man and wife (Rene Russo) lose child and agonize over how to get him back. The ""twist'' in the script by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon (loosely based on a 1955 Glenn Ford flick of the same name) is that Mel turns the tables on the bad guys, turning the $2 million ransom into a bounty on their heads. Will this risky turnabout succeed--or doom his son? You need to ask?

Slick and violent and reasonably tense, ""Ransom'' holds your attention without being the least bit interesting. One expects more edge--or at least some tasty dialogue--from a Price script, but Howard opts for movie reality over urban grit, which makes it hard to take seriously the film's pretense that it's exploring the gulf between the haves and have-nots. The motley lowlife ""family'' that constitutes the villains--led by Gary Sinise as a New York cop turned bad--never come to life. The only thing these implausible cohorts seem to have in common is the casting director who wasted such talents as Lili Taylor and Liev Schreiber in these parts. And having established that Gibson got to the top through dirty deeds, you might expect the movie to make something of it. It doesn't.

It's hard to see what intrigued Howard about this project, except as an academic exercise in wringing tension (something he did better in ""Apollo 13''). You relish the rare moments of humor, desperate for some contrast to the film's monotonous tone of anxiety. I guess most audiences will feel they've gotten their money's worth, but only one scene, late in the story, really got my gut churning, when Gibson welcomes his son's abductor into his home, mistaking him for his savior. The rest of the time Howard rolls out suspense by the yard, like someone laying industrial carpeting. It's long and gray and utterly undistinctive.