Monday, December 30, 2013

Taken for Ransom (Edell Film Fund I, Victory Angel Films, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 9 p.m. December 29 I watched a Lifetime TV-movie called Taken for Ransom, billed as a “world premiere” but apparently a film that was shot with at least the glimmer of hope for a theatrical release. It was co-written by Steven Edell (Jeremy and Elaine Edell, presumably his parents, are listed among the film’s official producers, along with actress Tia Carrere, suggesting this might at least have started life as a vehicle for her; she’s in the movie but not, surprisingly, as the female lead) and Harvey S. Fisher, and directed quite capably by Barbara Stepansky (every time I see a woman credited as director, especially on a film as good as this, I have hopes that she’ll be able to crack the glass ceiling and get assignments on major features — and usually those hopes are dashed). It begins with a “teaser” shot of the heroine, Brooke Holton (Teri Polo), running through a wood in the middle of the night, clad in a prison-like blue denim outfit, and then it cuts to an earlier scene showing Brooke’s family life, seemingly happy, with husband Albert Fuentes (Matt Socia) — an aspiring novelist who’s working on a book about the Spanish-American War (obviously the real writers’ choice of such a recherché subject for their fictional writer’s novel is intended to tell us that either he’ll never get the damned thing published or, if he does, it won’t sell for shit and he’ll still be living off his multimillionaire wife’s money) and their kids Billy (Parker Niksich) and Emma (Kenzie Pallone). Brooke, we eventually learn, is the founder and CEO of Holton Industries, which makes cryogenic equipment so gases can be liquefied and shipped over long distances, and both her home and work lives seem to be going just fine until one day she’s driving her son Billy to a soccer game when her cell phone buzzes with an incoming text message, she’s distracted from the road to look at it, and just then a truck comes barreling down towards her and hits her car. She survives relatively unscathed, at least physically, but Billy is killed.

This sends Brooke into a depressive funk; after a typical Lifetime title — “Nine Months Later” — we see her as a desperate basket case, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and staying smashed all day on alcohol and pills (the latter she obtains from a succession of therapists whose attempts to get her to face up to her real issues she blows off). We also see a sinister pair of hoods, Carl (Paul Vincent Blue) and a tough woman who looks like Klute-era Jane Fonda, stalking her and getting ready to — you guessed it — take her for ransom. When she’s kidnapped, she’s taken to a compound in a remote location and learns that the head of the kidnap gang is a man named Jerry (Chazz Palminteri) — “as in Jerry Lewis, a very funny man,” he says — both Charles and I noticed his striking resemblance to Ringo Starr — and she’s being held in an abandoned gym. Also being held with her is one of the gang’s previous victims, a young man named Will (Luke Eberl) — his age is carefully unspecified in the script, though he’s presented as too young for Brooke to develop a romantic or sexual interest in her (in fact Luke Eberl was born in 1986 and Teri Polo in 1969, but they look closer together in age than that on screen) — who’s worried that the kidnapers are going to mutilate him. At one point the writers insert a macabre joke when Jerry tells Brooke they’re going to send her husband her wedding ring to prove that they’re holding her (the “official” word is that she killed herself — the kidnappers made her sign a fake suicide note that said she was going to jump off a bridge), and when she asks if her finger is still going to be attached to it, he dismisses it as “too clichéd.” The gimmick is that, confronted with a gang of psychos who are likely to kill her at any moment, Brooke is going to get over her addictions, pull herself together and regain her personal strength as she looks for a way to escape and take Will — to whom she’s developed a motherly attraction and started to see as the son she lost — with her. She literally goes into training, learning how to run long distances and climb ropes, and eventually she figures out how to break the padlock on a door to the gym where they’re being held, she and Will stage their escape but the kidnappers confront them, there’s a gunfight (Will has stolen one of the gang’s guns) and everyone but Brooke is killed. She’s eventually rescued by a passing motorist and taken to the police, but when they take her back to the place where she says she was held it’s just an abandoned warehouse and there are no dead bodies, no disabled car (she was supposed to steal the gang members’ car to use in her escape, but it wasn’t working), no gym equipment and none of the elaborate video monitoring setup that had kept track of her every move.

The Lifetime synopsis on this movie — “She later discovers that someone close to her may be behind her subsequent abduction and kidnapping” — hints at one of the final twists but not at the second one [spoiler alerts!]: at first we’re led to believe that she was kidnapped by gangsters hired by her husband, who was having an affair with her assistant Michelle Gaines (Tia Carrere) and wanted to get his hands on their money; but later we find out that “Jerry” was really a therapist hired by her husband and Michelle to get her out of her blue funk with something called “immersion therapy,” in which they would create a scenario that would put her in apparent life-or-death jeopardy and thereby force her to regain her mojo and get her life back together, and the other three people involved — including “Will” — were all actors “Jerry” hired as part of the plot. I’m not sure I really believe this weird twist ending — though it does explain how the crooks (or supposed crooks) could be so sensible in some of their precautions and so slapdash in others (like never replacing the padlock to the metal door after she breaks it off) — certainly the husband-turns-out-to-be-a-creep-who-did-it-for-her-money ending would have been more credible, at least in the Lifetime universe — but overall Taken for Ransom is a quite good movie by Lifetime standards, not a world-beater but a nice couple of hours’ worth of entertainment that mostly plays fair with its audience despite the two big reversals at the end. It’s also well acted; Teri Polo is credible as both the basket case and the competent, high-achieving woman she turns back into as a result of the kidnap scenario, and Tia Carrere is appropriately sinister enough that we could well believe she’d be after both Brooke’s husband and her job.

Young cutie Luke Eberl — described in a 2008 issue of MovieMaker magazine as one of “10 Young Americans to Watch” — takes both the aesthetic and the acting honors, though; he seems genuinely traumatized by the experiences, especially when he tells Brooke (as part of the plot) that his dad paid the ransom the gang was charging for him but they refused to release him, and obviously they were going to hold up his dad for more money until he refused to pay and they killed him. It’s the same kind of dual game Kim Novak had to play in Vertigo — as a person with sincere emotions and as a person hired to fake those emotions for a plot — and Eberl acquits himself marvelously and he’s fun to look at. Incidentally, put up two “trivia” postings on this movie even before it was released, one about all the titles that were considered for it before the rather lame Taken for Ransom was picked (among the others was Matrix — already used, and too much of a giveaway anyway — The Holton File, Last Resort, Life Saver and Final Recourse, the title under which lists it) and the other saying it was originally written with the genders of the couple reversed (a man as the basket case flagellating himself chemically over the death of his child and his wife — presumably that would have been Tia Carrere’s role — as the mastermind of the phony “kidnapping” to free her husband from his demons), but the producers eventually decided it would have a better shot at dramatic credibility as well as international grosses with a woman as the lead. They were right; having the heroine a successful businesswoman married to a nobody made for more powerful drama and made it more believable that the husband could hatch a sinister plot to go after her money after years of feeling “unmanned” by a relationship in which his wife made far more money and he basically lived off her.