Two new movies revive a subject that melodramas have thrived on for ages: the kidnapping of a child, bringing anguish to the parents and toil to the well-meaning cops who try to crack the case.
What lends the current films a bit of extra interest is their similarity to each other, and their concern with social tensions that go far beyond the violence-filled incidents of their stories.
"Ransom" stars Mel Gibson as Tom Mullen, a wealthy airline executive whose son is snatched from New York's Central Park by an unknown criminal who wants $2 million for the child's safe return. Tom is so rich that $2 million seems a peculiarly modest amount for the kidnapper to demand, sparking suspicion that more than mere greed might be at work here.
We soon meet the abductor, a rogue cop named Jimmy Shaker who's put together a motley gang to pull off this operation.
Sure enough, he's less obsessed with acquiring Tom's money than with belittling what he sees as an arrogant wheeler-dealer who never thinks about the little people of the world. A subplot reveals that Tom has his own streak of duplicity, meanwhile, and has played some very mean hardball in the business world.
Lest we miss the movie's interest in class conflict, working-guy Jimmy uses up a whole scene telling rich-guy Tom the plot of H.G. Wells's novel "The Time Machine," about a future age when effete aristocrats live off the unrewarded labor of slaves relegated to darkness and misery.
More social commentary comes from the movie's portrayal of the media circus surrounding the crime, showing how TV reporting can create false impressions that would be hilarious if their consequences weren't potentially devastating.
The film can hardly be called progressive, though, since any rhetoric that questions the status quo is put in the mouth of a criminal who's more a psychopath than a revolutionary.
"Ransom" benefits from passionate acting by Gibson as the distraught father and Gary Sinise as the misanthropic villain. Ren Russo and Lili Taylor turn in solid performances as their wives, but this is mainly a guy picture, so they get only a handful of good scenes. Delroy Lindo and young Brawley Nolte head the good supporting cast.
Ron Howard has directed the action smoothly and efficiently, but be warned that there's a great deal of hard-hitting violence, including painful depictions of suffering endured by the kidnappers' nine-year-old victim.
The other current kidnapping story, "Mercy," has a much lower budget but a similar amount of intensity. It has an even larger dose of social consciousness, since it deals not only with class hostility but also with racial and sexual exploitation in an outwardly genteel and privileged household.
Again the victim's father is a rich professional man, again the villains use familiarity with his routine as a means of planning their crime, and again they lead him on a desperate chase around New York with confusing instructions about delivering the ransom and rescuing his child.
Also similar to "Ransom" is the depiction of kidnappers who are more interested in humbling the mighty than in lining their pockets with his cash.
"Mercy" was written and directed by Richard Shepard, a relatively new filmmaker who knows how to fill the screen with gritty realism and high-energy performances. These come from John Rubinstein as the father, Amber Kain as his antagonist, and Sam Rockwell as her accomplice.
The movie has flaws, including a disappointingly weak ending and a failure to make the abducted little girl - more important to the story than the parallel "Ransom" character - seem as real and well-rounded as the creeps who kidnap her. Most of the way, though, the yarn is every bit as convincing as the big-budget star vehicle that's competing with it.
* 'Ransom' is rated R, and 'Mercy' has been released without a rating. Both movies contain harrowing violence and a great deal of extremely vulgar language.