Director Ron Howard specializes in feel-good, light-as-a-feather entertainment, his biggest early hits being "Cocoon," "Splash" and "Parenthood." When he does get heavier, as with "Backdraft" and "The Paper," he tends to turn out fast-paced ensemble pieces with skimpy character development.

So it was a genuine surprise to see "Apollo 13" last year, which is unquestionably his best work to date, with a depth of emotion and strong characterizations that remain unequaled in his body of work.

Using that barometer, "Ransom" is a throwback to "Backdraft" and "The Paper," but it's also by far Howard's darkest work, earning its R rating for graphic violence and plenty of foul language. Like those films, however, it also skims over implausibilities and doesn't tell us enough about certain characters (especially those played by Gary Sinise and Lili Taylor).

Still, "Ransom" is a highly entertaining film, demonstrating Howard's knack for pacing, as it builds genuine, nail-biting tension and grips the audience throughout.

You've seen the television ads, of course, as Mel Gibson screams into the telephone: "Give me back my son!" What parent isn't going to be moved by that pronouncement? And audience manipulation is in high gear from the earliest scenes.

Gibson plays an airline tycoon whose young son is kidnapped by a ruthless gang, led by an intelligent manipulator who has carefully thought out this crime. He has all his bases covered, with hand-picked henchmen, and he has no compunctions about killing the kid. In fact, he plans to do just that.

Naturally, a couple of his co-conspirators are leery of this development, and one even makes a genuine effort to help the boy.

Early in the film, after a botched ransom drop, things begin to unravel as Gibson realizes they have no intention of letting his son live. So instead of giving the $2 million ransom to the kidnappers, Gibson decides to offer it to the general public as a bounty. He wants his son back unharmed, of course, but the reward is for tracking down the kidnappers - dead or alive.

This doesn't sit well with Gibson's wife (Rene Russo) or the FBI (led by Delroy Lindo), who see it as a reckless act, but it does serve to throw the kidnappers into chaos, setting up the film's final third, which is very exciting. (This avenue is ripe for psychological exploration, but it is quickly tossed aside in favor of fast-paced action.)

Through all of this, however, I couldn't help but be disturbed by just how dark it all is. Putting a child in peril is always a cheapthrill, and putting a gun to a kid's head is the cheapest way to invoke terror - and that's much of what this movie's scare factor is built upon.

Did it have to be quite this angry? Did the kidnappers have to keep saying all through the movie that they plan to kill the boy? Does the lad have to be handcuffed and starved and threatened repeatedly, with a gun pointed in his direction over and over? A little of this goes a long way, and Howard may have overplayed his hand in this regard.

But it's screenwriter Richard Price ("Clockers," "The Color of Money") who gets the blame for story weaknesses. There are plenty of red herrings, but there are also just as many plot holes.

Still, it's hard to deny that Howard is quite deft at tossing about audience emotions. Most of the way, this is a smartly directed, beautifully staged and photographed film. Add to that the fine performances delivered by Mel Gibson, Delroy Lindo, Gary Sinise and Lili Taylor - all of which elevate the script - and you have the makings of the holiday season's first big hit.

"Ransom" is rated R for violence, gore and quite a bit of foul language.