Director : Florent Siri
Screenplay : Doug Richardson (based on the novel by Robert Crais)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Bruce Willis (Jeff Talley), Kevin Pollak (Walter Smith), Jimmy Bennett (Tommy Smith), Michelle Horn (Jennifer Smith), Ben Foster (Mars Krupcheck), Jonathan Tucker (Dennis Kelly), Marshall Allman (Kevin Kelly), Serena Scott Thomas (Jane Talley), Rumer Willis (Amanda Talley), Kim Coates (The Watchman), Robert Knepper (Wil Bechler), Tina Lifford (Laura Shoemaker)
Clarity of motivation has always been central to the pleasures of the action movie. The hero has a clear-cut goal to pursue, and the single-mindedness with which he (or sometimes she) pursues the achievement of that goal -- whether it be rescuing someone or just wiping out a lot of bad guys -- is what allows for such easy audience escapism.
In this respect, Hostage is an interesting action movie because it muddies the protagonist’s motivation in such a way that it’s sometimes hard to root for him. Bruce Willis stars as Jeff Talley, a one-time hotshot Los Angeles hostage negotiator who, after having a situation under his control go terribly wrong, has relocated to a small burg in northern California where there is virtually no crime … that is, until three troubled teens (Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker, and Marshall Allman) decide to break into a monster mansion in the hills with the idea of stealing a car. The situation rapidly escalates into a violent hostage situation, with a father (Kevin Pollack), a teenage daughter (Michelle Horn), and an elementary-aged son (Jimmy Bennett) held by the panicked teens after one of them shoots a cop called by the house’s silent alarm.
Jeff has no qualms about handing this volatile situation over to authorities above him … until his own family is dragged into it. It turns out that the owner of the house in the hills is an accountant who works under the table for an unnamed, mysterious crime syndicate. In the house is a DVD with important information on it, and the organized crime lords, who are always seen either masked or in shadows, want to get it back before anything else goes down. Thus, they kidnap Jeff’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real-life daughter) and hold them hostage as a way of coercing him into controlling the situation in their favor.
Thus, Jeff is caught in a sticky moral quagmire in which he must make it appear that he is working to release the three hostages inside while secretly keeping them in there until the DVD has been recovered. Every decision he makes has two ramifications -- one for the family inside the house, and one for his own family -- either of which could be deadly and both of which are usually in conflict with each other. As a hero, then, Jeff is thoroughly compromised, as any “heroic” action on his part could lead to death for an innocent victim. At one point, he even knowingly and willingly risks causing brain damage to a character just to get information that will help his own family.
Hostage is certainly a dark, moody action movie, although it doesn’t end up following the story’s logic to its darkest conclusion. As this is a Hollywood movie, there is always an answer in the middle, one that will allow Jeff to guarantee the safe release of both the Smith family and his own while all the baddies, teenage and otherwise, get what’s coming to them. However, just as the movie begins lurching toward that conventional route, it takes a strange detour into the realm of the horror movie, as one of the teenagers, Mars (Ben Foster), is revealed to be an outright sociopath who turns into a warped amalgam of Jason Vorhees and the Terminator. With the house ablaze around them, a simple rescue scene turns into a Danta-esque inferno of insane passion that seems to have been teleported in from some other movie. It’s wonderfully, crazily gratuitous -- not quite on the level of Brian De Palma or Dario Argento at their hyperbolic best, but close.
If the movie sags a bit in the middle and bogs down, it is because of the filmmakers’ attempt to complicate the teenage criminals, whose blustery actions start the downward spiral of events. Screenwriter Doug Richardshon (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys), working from a novel by Robert Crais, attempts to flesh them out into full-blooded characters, but they’re really just a plot contrivance to put Jeff into his morally taxing dilemma. Richardson also tries to work in some class issues, as the whole “steal the car” idea germinates from one of the teens’ bitterness about having been told off by the rich-girl daughter. There are several jabs about the eccentricities of wealthy people, embodied in the ridiculously armored mansion and the irony that all its alarm systems and video monitors can’t stop a trio of teenagers from breaking in and wreaking havoc.
French-born director Florent Siri, making his English-language debut, gives the movie an inky, moody vibe, one that never allows you to sink into any kind of easy enjoyment. It seems like part of the goal of Hostage is to turn the pleasures of action movie conventions of their head, even if it takes a fairly conventional route in the end. Bruce Willis underplays his role, as usual, which is a needed antidote to all the hysteria spewing from the other characters. Willis has become an action movie staple, but a needed one who brings gravity and humanity to often ridiculous stories. Hostage is, in the end, just as ridiculous as most other action movies, but at least it’s one with a few ideas in its head.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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