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Film / Ruthless People

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[to the kidnappers] "What do I have to do? Put a gun in your hand, aim and pull your finger down, you spineless wimp?! [cue Ken sagging in defeat] I dare you to kill her! [hangs up] Now that oughta do it!"
Sam Stone

A modern update of O Henry's The Ransom Of Red Chief, and the only traditional, non-Rapid-Fire Comedy by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team. It also proved to be the last time all three men would direct as a trio.

Businessman Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) is planning to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), but before he gets the chance, she's kidnapped by a married couple who Sam cheated out of their life savings. Sam is overjoyed at this turn of events, since it saves him the trouble of killing her himself. Unfortunately for him, they're not very good at the kidnapping thing, and fail to be the ruthless people they claim to be. They're incapable of harming Barbara, even as she verbally assaults them and Sam ignores their instructions, refuses their demands, and eventually tries to goad them into violence.


Meanwhile Sam's mistress, Carol, and her other boyfriend, the incredibly dim-witted Earl, are plotting to blackmail Sam for Barbara's murder, and things go even more awry.

Confused yet? Well don't worry, it all makes sense when you see it. The "drama" is all Played for Laughs to make for a very funny movie which features attack dogs, an accidental extortion of the area police chief, a seemingly-unrelated Serial Killer, and quite possibly the stupidest person on the face of the earth.



  • Affably Evil: Sam. The police think he's great, and there's a reason Barbara thinks he loves her.
  • Animated Credits Opening: The opening credits are a clever series of ruthless acts, like stabbing, poisoning, arson, etc.
  • Anti-Villain: Ken and Sandy aren't bad people in any shape or form. If anything, they're two of the nicest people in the entire movie. The reason they kidnap Barbara is because they were ripped off by Sam and are willing to blackmail him to get even. Even then, they're more than accommodating with Barbara, even befriending her and teaming up with her to finally get the ransom money in the end.
  • As You Know: In the opening monologue, Sam tells Carol about how he got married to Barbara. She even tells him he's told her the story many times.
  • Auto Erotica: Chief Benton has wild sex with a prostitute at night in his car while Earl Mott is filming both of them in an attempt to prove Sam Stone murdered his wife.
  • Bee Bee Gun: At one point, after learning of Sam's infidelity and his refusal to pay the ransom, Barbara fantasizes punishing him by covering with honey and taking him to a bee farm.
  • Bill... Bill... Junk... Bill...: Sam does almost exactly this when he returns home.
    Sam: "Junk, garbage, garbage, junk..."
  • Broken Pedestal: Barbara is less-than-pleased to find out Sam's deception.
  • Call-Back: Talking about business with a policeman, Sam tells him "A bad salesman will automatically drop his price. Bad salesmen make me sick." A few moments later, Ken calls Sam about the ransom:
    Ken: Well, what about... less?
    Sam: (covers the phone) You make me sick.
  • Compensating for Something: Strongly hinted by Ken by anyone who wants the massive Dominator speakers.
    Male buyer: Yeah, uh, what do you think of this one? (winks at girlfriend)
    Ken: The Dominator X1? The Dominator's a good marketing idea, but it's really not a good speaker. (half-whispers) We give it a 500% markup, so we sell it at 50% off, giving the customer the illusion he's getting a deal, but we still make a bundle.
    Girlfriend: But it's so big and impressive!
    Ken: Size means very little. Bigger is not necessarily better. (beat) I sound like Dr. Ruth.
    Girlfriend: You mean the Dominator's like a, uh—
    (at this point, the Male Buyer is looking VERY sheepish and embarrassed)
    Ken: Well, the Dominators are very popular with men who'd like to have bigger... uh...
    Girlfriend: Equipment?
    Ken: Exactly!
    (the Male Buyer looks like he'd rather be anywhere but here now)
  • Description Cut: When Barbara arrives at her kidnappers' home.
    *cut to Sam, popping open a champagne bottle*
    Sam: [cackles, pours] Bye bye, Barbara!
    • And the first ransom phonecall, where the kidnappers tell Sam not to contact the police or the media or his wife will die. Cut to a huge slew of TV vans and police cruisers around his house.
      Ken: (incredulous) What did he do, hire a publicist?!
  • The Ditz / Dumb Blonde: Earl.
  • The '80s: Dear Lord, yes. Especially the fashions.
    Earl: (seeing his fish) Crockett and Tubbs... they're floatin'!
    • Interestingly, however, the 1987 film has some proto-The '90s elements to it.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening dialogue of the film consists of Sam telling Carol that he married Barbara only for her money, that he hates her with every fiber of his being, and that he is going to thoroughly enjoy killing her by throwing her off a cliff so he can inherit her money. Not counting the animated opening credits, the film hasn't reached its first minute and already we hate (or absolutely love) this guy.
    Sam: I had to live with that squealing, corpulent little toad all these years. God, I hate that woman. I - I - I hate the way she licks stamps! I hate her furniture! And I hate that little sound she makes when she sleeps. (makes wheezing sounds) And that filthy little shitbag dog of hers... "Muffy"!
    Carol: Aren't you scared?
    Sam: Scared? Hell, no. I'm looking forward to it. My only regret, Carol, is that the plan isn't more violent.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: "My tux. My silk tux. Et tu, Adolf? Et tu?"
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Carol and Earl. They blanche at the thought of murder.
  • Evil Redhead: Carol plans to blackmail Sam, although she's otherwise not that villainous.
  • Fat Suit: Bette Midler wears one for pre-captured Barbara.
  • Flaw Exploitation: Barbara, and how! For example, she frightens Sandy with state execution talk.
    Barbara: It could mean the difference between life, and the chair! (pretends to be electrocuted violently) Or the gas chamber. (makes hissing and gasping sounds) You know, sometimes, the firing squad? They miss all the major arteries! BANG! (slumps as if shot) And you don't die right away, you kinda just... hang on... bleeding... BLEEDING...
    (Sandy screams and runs away.)
    • To Ken, who doesn't scare as easily:
    Barbara: (whistles) Nice butt. That's what they'll say.
    Ken: I beg your pardon?
    Barbara: Nice butt. That's what they'll say on your first day, in the men's club.
    Ken: The men's club?
    Barbara: Mmm. The San Quentin Country Club. With a cute little rear end like that, you'll be the belle of the ball. Your dance card'll be filled every day. You'll be so popular, making all kinds of new, close friends. Big, ugly, hairy friends! Not that you'll ever see what they look like, 'cause you'll be facing the other way.
  • For the Lulz: Sam loves wrong phone numbers.
    Sam: Hello? Debbie? Yeah, Debbie's here, who's this? Well, Ralph, uh, Debbie can't talk right now, my dick's in her mouth. How about if I have her call you back later when I'm done? (hangs up) I love wrong numbers.
  • Funny Background Event: Two detectives walk along the boardwalk discussing how great it is that Barbara and Sam have been reunited. Meanwhile, Barbara is kicking Sam's ass behind them.
    • Also when the police come to Sam and ask him to come and identify the body, uniformed officers are playing tennis on his tennis court.
    • When the Benton video is played on department store televisions, an offscreen woman can be heard exclaiming, "That's my husband!"
  • Gambit Pileup:
    • Ken and Sandy kidnap Barbara because her husband Sam stole Sandy's spandex miniskirt idea (and thought Barbara was complicit as well.)
    • Sam wants to goad the kidnappers into killing Barbara so he can inherit her fortune and live happily ever after with his mistress Carol.
    • Carol is pretending to have the hots for Sam so she can blackmail him for the murder.
  • Gold Digger: Sam on Barbara, Carol on Sam.
  • Groin Attack: Barbara fantasizes about this.
    Barbara: Castrate him! I wanna castrate him! [demonstrates]
    • This exchange:
      Ken: What can we deprive Sam of that would really get to the core of his being?
      Barbara: HIS TESTICLES!
    • She also does it once or twice to Ken when trying to escape.
    • Also pay attention to exactly how she ends up kicking Sam off the pier.
  • Home Porn Movie: This is what the "evidence tape" turns out to be.
  • Humiliation Conga: Starts on Sam when he get arrested for the murder of his wife.
  • I Have Your Wife: Inverted, as Sam actually wants rid of Barbara anyway.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: The prostitute having sex with Chief Benton:
    Chief Benton: I like a woman who makes a lot of sound.
    Prostitute: Uh-huh. Well, I'll scream my head off if you want to, honey. It's your money.
    Chief Benton: Yeah, my wife just lays there like a gunnysack.
    • Then when they proceed to 'get it on', her screams are so loud that Earl thinks the murder that's supposed to happen is especially brutal.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: When Earl and Carol deduce that Barbara's kidnapping was real:
    Carol: Barbara really was kidnapped!
    [cut to Sam in the police station]
    Sam: [pleading] She really was kidnapped!
    • Bonus points for the DVD chapter also saying, "She Really Was Kidnapped".
  • Irony: The only two characters who we actually see commit a crime (as opposed to just planning one like most of the other characters) are Ken and Sandy, who are also the two nicest and kindest characters in the movie. Everyone else are devious and/or ruthless.
  • It's X, I Hate X: The serial killer tells Barbara "You remind me of my mother. I hate my mother."
  • Jerkass: There are times where you'd be questioning why Barbara would marry someone as irredeemable as Sam, who doesn't exactly hide what a complete scumbag he is. On the other hand, as noted under Affably Evil, he is capable of fooling people when he needs to.
  • Karma Houdini: A surprisingly heroic example. Neither Ken nor Sandy end up getting caught by the police, and get to keep the ransom money they so-rightly deserve.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Sam. Not only does he end up losing his entire net worth, but he also ends up getting beaten up by Barbara for everything he did and didn't do while she was kidnapped.
  • Large Ham: Barbara and Sam.
  • Lima Syndrome: The Kesslers and Barbara.
  • Los Angeles
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: A simple kidnapping turns into this by the end of the movie.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: The Kesslers and Barbara, partly due to them being nicer to her than her husband apparently ever was.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: A justified form in that Sam said he was going to kill Barbara. Things just get really confused over what actually happens.
  • The Mistress: Carol.
  • Mood Whiplash: Deliberately by Barbara, who is supposed to pretend to be a helpless kidnappee who needs Sam, but is so vengeful she needs to insult him.
    Barbara: (on phone with Sam) Do you have it all? 2.2 million dollars in unmarked, non-sequential bills? YOU MISERABLE SCUM-SUCKING PIG! Oh, I'm sorry, honey. They made me say that.
    Sam: Yeah, it's all here.
    Barbara: And you have it all in a briefcase? YOU SCUMBAG, YOU LOWLIFE MOTHERFUCKER! I'm sorry. They made me say that too! (she grins and sips some wine)
    • What really makes the scene is the unabashed, avid grin on Barbara's face during the scene.
    • Played straight when the serial killer breaks into Ken and Sandy's home.
  • Never Found the Body: Subverted after the kidnapper and his car falls into the water at the pier. A short time later, we see the police fishing the corpse of the Bedroom Killer (who died earlier in the kidnapper's house by accident) out of the water (the kidnappers put him there as a decoy) while the kidnapper survives thanks to SCUBA gear and makes it to the beach to be reunited with his wife and Mrs. Stone before the end credits roll.
  • Nice Guy: Ken, who refuses to force people to buy the biggest speakers in the store, and even tells them how the store rips people off with them by overpricing. At one point, Ken, infuriated at being manipulated into dropping the ransom again by Sam, decided to be "ruthless" and force a kid barely out of school into buying the expensive speakers even though he can't afford it ("That's the beauty of it. If you can't afford it, fuckin' finance it! Who cares if it's as big as Subaru and costs twice as much, you'll never have to upgrade it and when you die you can be buried in 'em!"), but when he sees said kid has a pregnant wife, he backs off and suggests the bargain speakers again.
  • Obviously Evil: On the other hand, Sam's so malicious, if he had a handlebar mustache he'd twirl it.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Sam's expression when he hears Barbara's voice at the end.
    • Earl when he realises he's surrounded by what seems like the entire local police department.
    • Words cannot describe the look on Chief Benton's face when he watches the video of him having sex with prostitute in his car.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Constantly. Sam talks about the kidnapping but Carol thinks he's talking about the murder he had planned. Carol thinks she's talking about evidence that proves Sam killed his wife but Chief Benton thinks he's being blackmailed into arresting an innocent man. Sam talks about having rough sex but Carol thinks he's threatening to torture and kill her. Then you have this exchange when Sam is looking for a dog to kill Muffy and on the phone with Carol:
    Carol: Is there anything else you desire?
    Sam: How 'bout a big dog? Can you get one?
    Carol: A big.... dog?
    Sam: Yeah, like a Great Dane or a mastiff. How big does a shepherd get?
    Carol: Sam, as sexually provocative as I like to think I am...
    Sam: (rolling eyes) I'm not askin' you to screw the dog, Carol. (beat) It's for me.
  • Only Sane Man: Ken often comes across as this.
  • Pity the Kidnapper: Just at first.
  • Police are Useless: They don't have a clue as to what's happening until Carol orders the Chief to arrest Sam Stone.
  • Pretty in Mink: Carol has a dark mink coat and a white mink jacket.
  • Prisons Are Gymnasiums: The Kesslers' basement is for Barbara. She loses a fair amount of weight in a very short time, which actually sparks her friendship with her kidnappers.
    • Though, it's not a well-thought-out execution of the trope. Barbara is there at most two weeks, not enough time to lose 20+ pounds, at least not safely. She also says she's eating less, which makes sense in terms of burning calories, but also begs the question of why she looks slim and fit instead of starved.
  • Prison Rape: Barbara threatens Ken with it; when Sam's thrown in jail, one of the inmates makes a move on him.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The entire film, summed up by this exchange:
    Sam: What's this phone call about?
    Ken: We call to make you an offer. An offer you can't refuse.
    Sam: Low?
    Ken: Yeah, $10,000.
    Sam: Fat chance!
    Sam: Time out! I believe this is a joke, pal, and you're it! The last time we spoke you said my wife would be in the morgue if I didn't pay. Well, I didn't pay and just today I was at the morgue and she wasn't there. You lied to me! You know what I think?
    Ken: (utterly defeated) No.
    Sam:: You got no nuts! What do I have to do? Put a gun in your hand, aim and pull your finger down, you spineless wimp?! I dare you to kill her! (slams phone down) Now that oughta do it!
  • Sexy Coat Flashing: Carol shows up at Sam's office on his birthday with only a teddy under her mink coat.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Even Sam, who loathes Barbara, is flabbergasted with how svelte she becomes.
  • Shrinking Violet: Sandy is a rather shy, softly-spoken, easily-spooked and mousy type of person who clearly isn't particularly well-suited to the whole 'kidnapping' lifestyle. Barbara ends up drawing her out of her shell a little bit.
  • Sic 'em: "Muffy, meet Adolf. Adolf, EAT MUFFY!"
  • Southern Belle: Carol, which is to be expected for a character played by Anita Morris.
  • Split-Screen Phone Call: Twice, between Carol and Chief Benton discussing Sam's arrest and then his release.
  • Springtime for Hitler: Sam tries to get his wife killed by failing to pay the ransom. It doesn't work.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Barbara, elated for having lost twenty pounds while staying with the Kesslers, actually starts bonding with Sandy over her dress designs and even offers to go into business with her. When she realizes that Sam really wanted her dead, she chooses to help the Kesslers blackmail Sam.
  • Sweater Girl: Carol has a few sweaters.
  • Title Drop: Danced around by Ken, who tells Sandy that they need to "think ruthless."
  • Title Theme Tune: The opening song by Mick Jagger.
  • Threat Backfire: The whole movie revolves around this.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Earl Mott, who among other things inserts himself into a hostage/robbery scenario after the police have already surrounded the scene.
    Lt. Bender: [in megaphone] This is the Los Angeles Police Department.
    Earl: [calling] Really?
    Lt. Bender: [in megaphone]! We're the National Rifle Association! [cue row of officers aiming guns at Earl, who drops his in shock]
    • Lampshaded by the police detectives at the scene of the above:
    Lt. Walters: This could very well be the stupidest person on the face of the earth. Perhaps we should shoot him.
    • Also Lampshaded by Carol, when confused by the Police Chief's reaction to the "evidence" tape. When she says, "Either the chief is a complete moron and complete morons are rare... ", her eyes fix for a second on Earl.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Barbara. Even granting the understandable stresses she's put under she's a pretty horrible person at the beginning of the movie, and it's heavily suggested that her unpleasant personality was a factor long before she was kidnapped. Spending time with the Kesslers, however, and losing weight has an improving effect on her personality and she gradually becomes a much nicer person.
  • Wealthy Ever After: Ken, Sandy, and Barbara after making off with most of the ransom money.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Earl is presumably arrested for trying to steal the ransom money from Ken, but we never see Carol again.
  • You Can Keep Her: A classic example. Given how much Sam hates Barbara and wants to be rid of her, he makes absolutely no attempt to cooperate with Ken and Sandy in the hopes that they actually Barbara.
  • You Remind Me of X: The Bedroom Killer thinks Barbara looks like his mother, and Ken looks like his father. He murderously hates both.
    Barbara: So, if I look like his mother and you look like his father... this is what our son would look like. Pretty strong argument for birth control.
  • Your Cheating Heart:
    • The Chief gets caught in some very off the wall implications of this.
    • Sam is cheating on Barbara with Carol and Carol is cheating on Sam with Earl.


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