Michael Bay's most recent film Pain & Gain, which opens in theaters this Friday, is a true-story kidnapping saga all about a group of Miami bodybuilders and personal trainers who kidnap and torture a rich client in order to steal his house and all his property. For Bay, who typically makes 150-minute, $200 million special effects extravaganzas, Pain & Gain is a relatively low-budget (a mere $25 million) and high-concept enterprise. Why pay for expensive CGI robots when you can just hire Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson to do 500 situps a day?
Kidnapping has long been a common trope in movies and on TV. When asked to come up with a list of the best kidnapping movies, my mind immediately flooded with images taken from the cartoons of my youth, populated with saddened animals (anthropomorphic and otherwise) peering through the rusty bars of their tiny cages, each patiently waiting to be rescued by the show's hero. Wasn't Astro Jetson even kidnapped at one point? TV and movie writers love kidnapping because of its easy dramatic possibilities; kidnapping instantly creates an interesting triangular character dynamic. You have the kidnapper, usually a desperate criminal in need of money. You have the kidnapping victim, who can either try to escape, try to talk the kidnapper out of the crime, or even fall in love with the kidnapper (Stockholm Syndrome is a thing). And you have the panicked parent/husband/wife/friend who is meant to pay the ransom.
Oh yes, and ransom is almost always involved, leading to tensions as to how to get a large amount of money, how to transport it, and what the kidnappers intend to do with it. A story with a suitcase full of cash will always have us taking notice.
To celebrate kidnapping (what am I saying?), I have compiled the following list of ten kidnapping-centered feature films, perhaps the best, that ever have crossed my path. The clarify, these are films that are plotted around kidnappings, and not films that just prominently feature kidnappings. I can think of many, many films that feature a last-minute hostage situation (Dog Day Afternoon, Speed, etc.). The films on this list will be centered on kidnappings.
Suicide Kings (dir. Peter O'Fallon, 1997) &
A Life Less Ordinary (dir. Danny Boyle, 1997) &
Teaching Mrs. Tingle (dir. Kevin Williamson, 1999)
We'll start with a three-way tie of films taken from the indie boom of the 1990s. Thanks to the popularity of Pulp Fiction, many filmmakers began making casually violent crime films about charismatic criminals embroiled in complex and illegal plots that they really didn't have too much control over. As such, the late 1990s saw scads of entertaining and dark low-budget crime stories (and there will be more on this list). Suicide Kings assembled an amazing cast of up-and-coming young character actors (including Denis Leary, Jay Mohr, Sean Patrick Flannery, and Henry Thomas) as a group of gangster's lackeys and sons who want to prove that they have the chops to enter the Big Time. They prove it by kidnapping a grumpy crime boss (Christopher Walken) and holding him for ransom. They even think to cut off his pinky. The problem is Walken won't stop bleeding, and he recognizes that they are all amateurs. Dark comedy ensues.
Danny Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary, from the same year, is a bonkers romance crime odyssey about a desperate young cleaning man (Ewan McGregor) who kidnaps his boss' daughter (Cameron Diaz) as revenge for being replaced by a robot. It doesn't take long before these two realize that they're actually very much in love, and the kidnapping becomes something more like a high-octane honeymoon. Throw in some angels and bonkers animated sequences, and you have a striking and memorable kidnapping flick.
Kevin Williamson, in his only directorial effort, made Teaching Mrs. Tingle two years later, which followed a 17-year-old intellectual (Katie Holmes) whose ambition to be her school's valedictorian leads her to kidnap Mrs. Tingle (Helen Mirren), the only teacher who gave her a less-than-perfect score. Of course the film is peppered with Williamson's jokey teen patois. Each of these films strongly represents the scuzzy dark/comic sensibilities of late-'90s. And speaking of which...
Buffalo '66 (dir. Vincent Gallo, 1998)
Vincent Gallo is an unusual man to say the least. He's made two slow-moving and challenging dramas, both starring himself, both about aggressive and pathetic men who tend to force or coerce young women into being romantically interested in him. His films both feature a egotistical streak of insufferable self-pity, but it cannot be denied that they are fascinating pieces of work. His feature debut, Buffalo '66, was a kidnapping drama that, oddly, did not involve ransom. Gallo plays a temperamental criminal who kidnaps a pretty young girl (Christina Ricci, very appealing) so that she may play his girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner. Gallo's parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston) are kind of monstrous, and we begin to see that the relationship between Gallo and his kidnapping victim is actually a healthier and more realistic relationship than the one he has with his uncaring parents. The film is mannered and stylized and a prime example of scuzz cinema. It also has an amazing trailer.
Misery (dir. Rob Reiner, 1990)
Although it seems based directly on the fears of famous authors and famous authors alone, Rob Reiner's Misery (adapted from a novel by Stephen King) is still a shocking and harrowing kidnapping tale that punches you in the gut. James Caan plays a famous author named Paul Sheldon who has been trying to retire his most famous character, a girl named Misery. One night, he accidentally crashes his car in the snowy woods, where he is rescued by Annie Wilkes (Academy Award winner Kathy Bates), who is incidentally his biggest fan. Bedridden, he is coddled and fed, but it's not long before Annie is insisting he write Misery stories at her behest. Yes, she will eventually drug and torture him to get what she wants. This is a kidnapping story told out of the pain and panic of the victim, and how the kidnapper can be more than a desperate criminal. Often, they can just be an outright psychopath.
Sexus (dir. José Bénazéraf, 1965)
Partway between a lurid and grimy crime potboiler and the arch and aloof films of the French New Wave, José Bénazéraf's obscure and fragrant 1965 kidnapping cheapie is a bizarre breast-filled coldsnap of absurdism that positively drips with sexual menace. Virginia De Solen plays a rich heiress named Virginie who is kidnapped by a pair of none-too-bright lowlifes. As the three of them wait for the ransom to come in, Virginie begins coming onto one of them, while the other looks on in jealousy. Eventually, there will be an attempted rape and chases through the woods. It's never clear if Virginie is a sly and conniving temptress who is intentionally sowing discord, or if she really is the slutty vixen she appears to be. Either way, Sexus frames kidnapping and crime to be one of the most sexual acts that a human is capable of. And it's just so deliciously dirty.
Gone Baby Gone (dir. Ben Affleck, 2007)
There was a lot of apprehension about Gone Baby Gone back in 2007. Many weren't too sure that Ben Affleck, previously a matinee idol actor and boyfriend of Jennifer Lopez, could manage to direct anything of substance. His film, however, proved to be one of the best films of that year, a year when American films were already at a particularly notable high. It proved to be soulful and tragic and amazing, and that Affleck had great things ahead of him; indeed, his film Argo just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan play a pair of private investigators who are looking into the kidnapping of a young girl when the police fail to turn anything up. The story is twisted and appropriately potboiler-ish, but Gone Baby Gone is stirringly authentic to its Boston setting, and features a late-film moral dilemma that elevates the otherwise rote plotting.
The Candy Snatchers (dir. Guerdon Trueblood, 1973)
“Guerdon Trueblood” is an awesome name. I have seen many grindhouse films of the 1970s, and few encapsulate the spirit of wickedly grimy grindhouse filmmaking like the obscure oddity The Candy Snatchers, once a drive-in regular. Susan Sennett plays the titular Candy, a pretty blonde girl, who is kidnapped by a trio of thugs (Tiffany Bolling, Brad David, and Ben Piazza) and buried in a shallow grave for safe keeping (don't worry, they give her a hole to breathe). When they send for ransom, they find that Candy's rich stepfather doesn't actually want her back, and he begins subtly goading them to murder her. The film becomes an odd battle of wills. It also constantly teases us with Candy's escape, as a young autistic boy is witnessing all of this. Playful, sexy, dark, delightfully obscure, and totally fun, The Candy Snatchers is one of the better kidnapping movies. Read Marc Edward Heuck's love of this film.
Taken (dir. Pierre Morel, 2008)
Not all kidnapping films have to be dark dramas about the dissipation of relationships. Sometimes they can be rollicking and rip-snorting action flicks like Taken. Coming out of left field in February of 2008, no one expected this action cheapie to do any business, but it's proven time and again to be one of many people's favorite recent action films, including one of mine. Liam Neeson plays Brian Mills, a tree of a man, who finds his pretty teenage daughter kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers. Using his skills acquired by years of CIA service, Brian goes to France and pretty much shoots, beats up, or explodes anyone who stands in his way. It's a glorious celebration of clunky machismo that is hard not to enjoy, even if it is a little bit morally irresponsible.
Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch, 1986)
It starts with a human ear, leads us through drugged kinky sex, dangerous criminals, one of the strangest and most disturbing on-screen romances in many years, and ends with an animatronic bird with a bug in its mouth. David Lynch's aggressively off-putting classic Blue Velvet, hotly contested, is still often considered to be one of his best films, and the film that brought his surreal suburban Hell aesthetic into the mainstream in a way that films like Dune and Eraserhead were unable to. Kyle MacLachlan plays a college kid, home from school, who, thanks to a severed human ear, finds himself enmeshed in a bizarre kidnapping plot, wherein Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) has been extorting Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) for drug-fueled sex fantasies. She just wants her son back, but she also finds that she's oddly conducive to the violent sex that Frank has subjected her to. But this is no mere examination of fetish. This is a twisted odyssey into the fear-smeared corners of the human mind.
Fargo (dirs. The Coen Bros., 1996)
Kidnapping has always been a reliable story trope of The Coen Bros., as it has featured in Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and was the centerpiece of this, their Academy Award-winning classic. Fargo, set in the snowy climes of America's ultra-square Midwest and fallaciously based on a true story, centers on the pathetic car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, who has hired a pair of loose cannons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, all in the hopes that her rich father will pay the ransom. Jerry and the kidnappers will then split the ransom. No kidnapping plots go that smoothly, however, and it's not long before there is gunplay and a famous scene involving a wood chipper. On their tail is a very pregnant and very good cop (Oscar-winner Frances McDormand). No one does pop tragicomedy like The Coen Bros., and many consider Fargo to be their magnum opus.
High and Low (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Often cited as one of Kurosawa's lesser films, High and Low still bears much of the master's usual moral turpitude. In the film's first half, told almost entirely within one room, a rich executive (Toshiro Mifune) has learned that his son has been kidnapped. He immediately rallies his lawyers and cops, and tries to gather the ransom money. When he learns that he was mistaken, and it was only his chauffeur's son that was kidnapped, he actually begins to balk at the amount of money he wants to pay. The entire first half then becomes a moral examination of the price of a human life you love, versus the price of a human life you don't care as much about. It's a melodramatic morality play that only an immensely subtle director like Kurosawa could pull off. The second half is a police procedural, but the moment of doubt lingers over the rest of the film. It's not just a great kidnapping movie. It's a cinema classic.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List.