Ruthless People is a 1986 black comedy film written by Dale Launer, directed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, and starring Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Judge Reinhold, and Helen Slater, with Bill Pullman in a supporting role in his film debut.
It is the story of a couple who kidnap their ex-boss's wife to get revenge and extort money from him. They soon realize he does not want her back and was planning to kill her himself. Meanwhile the boss's mistress plans a blackmail attempt on him which also does not go as planned.
Millionaire Sam Stone (DeVito) intends to murder his hated wife Barbara (Midler) to gain control of her $15 million family fortune and run off with his mistress Carol (Anita Morris). However, he is pre-empted by a phone call from an anonymous man announcing that Barbara has been kidnapped and that Sam must pay a ransom of $500,000 or she will be killed.
Overjoyed, Sam deliberately disobeys all of the kidnapper's demands (e.g., not paying the ransom, contacting the press and the police), believing this will ensure his wife's death. He is happy that she will die and he won't be legally implicated in her death.
The kidnappers are Ken (Reinhold) and Sandy Kessler (Slater), who want revenge on Sam for stealing Sandy's fashion design, along with the Kesslers' life savings. Barbara is imprisoned in the Kesslers' basement, where she proves a handful to the amateur kidnappers. When Sam doesn't show up with the ransom on several occasions, even when the price is dropped, it becomes obvious that Sam doesn't want his wife back, and would rather she were dead.
Carol, having learned of Sam's plan to kill Barbara, secretly intends to blackmail Sam, with the help of her handsome but dim-witted boyfriend Earl (Pullman). Knowing Sam plans to dump his wife's body in the Hollywood Hills at night, Carol has Earl lie in wait with a video camera. He mistakenly films a rendezvous between a prostitute and her client performing noisy sex in the front seat of a car. Earl, hearing the woman's screams, thinks the murder is happening right in front of him.
Without watching the tape, Carol sends an anonymous copy to Sam, who sees the sex act and thinks Carol has sent it to him as a tittilating birthday present. He tells Carol he will do the same thing to her, causing her to think he plans to kill her. Carol sends another anonymous copy to police chief Henry Benton (Schilling) — who happens to be the prostitute's client. Benton, thinking that he is being blackmailed, asks for the demands. Carol tells him to arrest Sam Stone for murdering his wife.
Benton orders a search of Sam's house, planning to plant evidence, but real evidence turns up—a bottle of chloroform Sam intended to use to sedate his wife. There also are pictures of Sam with Carol. The kidnapping investigation, which has led to Ken by now, is immediately called off, and Sam is arrested. Sam now faces the unhappy prospect of having to get his wife back in order to prove his innocence.
Taking up exercise to relieve her boredom, Barbara loses twenty pounds. Unexpectedly, she bonds with Sandy, who lets Barbara wear some of her dress designs to show off her new figure. Barbara loves them, and offers to go into business with Sandy. Permitted to leave, Barbara comes right back as soon as she finds out from the newspaper about Sam's mistress; she realizes he wanted her dead. Barbara is attacked in the Kessler home by a notorious local serial killer, The Bedroom Killer, who falls down the basement steps and dies.
Barbara, Ken and Sandy plot revenge on Sam. Now desperate to prove his wife is alive, Sam offers to pay the ransom the moment Ken calls him again. Armed with Barbara's inside knowledge, they have increased the ransom to equal Sam's entire net worth: over $2 million. Sam is outraged, but has no choice. He withdraws the cash, but begs the police to watch the drop site. Carol finally views the videotape in a video store where the Police Chief is recognized. She realizes now Barbara really was kidnapped. Carol learns the time and place of the ransom drop.
Sam waits with his life savings in cash in a briefcase. Ken arrives in disguise to get the money, but then scores of hidden police suddenly appear. Sam gives the briefcase to Ken, but Earl arrives with a gun, intent on robbing Sam. He instead tries to rob Ken (who is holding the briefcase). In the ensuing confusion, Earl is captured.
Ken takes the briefcase and drives towards the coast, with many police cars following him. He drives onto—and eventually off of—the end of Santa Monica Pier with the ransom cash inside. The police search the water and bring up the car, with the body of the Bedroom Killer inside (dressed in Ken's clothes and disguise). Only a few thousand dollars of money are recovered from the ocean.
Although he has lost all his money, Sam holds out hope that Barbara will now definitely be killed—because (according to the kidnappers) if anything went wrong, they'd kill her, and he'd inherit her $15 million fortune. But Barbara shows up and lies to the police that her kidnapper (the serial killer) was schizophrenic, believing himself to have an accomplice, and so she was able to escape as soon as he left. The police walk away in satisfaction.
Sam, meanwhile, is taken aback by how thin Barbara is. As they embrace, she beats him up, tells him that she wants a divorce and pushes him into the water. On a nearby beach, Ken emerges from the water in scuba gear, carrying the briefcase with the ransom cash. Sandy runs to embrace him. They are joined by Barbara, walking along the beach happily together.
- Danny DeVito – Sam Stone
- Bette Midler – Barbara Stone
- Judge Reinhold – Ken Kessler
- Helen Slater – Sandy Kessler
- Anita Morris– Carol Dodsworth
- Bill Pullman – Earl Mott
- Art Evans – Lt. Bender
- Clarence Felder – Lt. Walters
- J. E. Freeman – Bedroom Killer
- Gary Riley – Heavy Metal Kid
- Phyllis Applegate – Loan Officer
- Jeannine Bisignano – Hooker in Car
The movie was a smash hit grossing $71,600,000 in box office receipts. Ruthless People received mostly positive reviews from critics and currently holds a 92% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews.
The album's soundtrack was released on Epic Records.
- "Ruthless People" - Mick Jagger
- "Give Me the Reason" - Luther Vandross
- "Modern Woman" - Billy Joel
- "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)" - Paul Young
- "No Say In It" - Machinations
- "Waiting To See You" - Dan Hartman
- "Dance Champion" - Kool and The Gang
- "Neighborhood Watch" - Michel Colombier
- "Stand On It" - Bruce Springsteen
- "Don't You Want My Love" - Nicole McCloud
- Ruthless People at Rotten Tomatoes
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