A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, R, 113 mins.

Jeff Talley: Bruce Willis / Mr. Smith: Kevin Polluck / Dennis Kelly: Jonathon Tucker / Mars: Ben Foster / Tommy Smith: Jimmy Bennett / Jennifer Smith: Michelle Horn / Sean Mack: Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak / Kevin Kelly: Marshall Allman / Jane Talley: Serena Scott Thomas

Directed by Florent Emilio Siri /  Written by Doug Richardson / Based on the novel by Robert Crais

The last year has not been altogether kind to Mr. Bruce Willis.

His last major film was that trainwreck of a comedy that was THE WHOLE TEN YARDS, a farce so perversely bad that that I doubted the very sanity of all participants involved.  He also provided his voice talents to 2004’s RUGRAT’S GO WILD, a film that I did not see and don’t humbly feel the need to see anytime in the near or distant future.  During the last few years his films have also been largely hit or miss affairs, from the serviceably entertaining HART’S WAR in 2002, to the polished action/military film TEARS OF THE SUN of 2003, to the dreadfully dull and unfunny BANDITS of 2001.  Yes, Mr. Willis desperately needs a refresher course in what makes him a bankable, charismatic, and authoritative screen presence. 

Enter HOSTAGE, Willis’ return to the genre that made him an overnight movie star with 1988’s DIE HARD.  With HOSTAGE Willis returns to fine form in a role that plays somewhat like his wise-cracking Detective John McClane, but with a bit more substance.  He demonstrates here, as he did with the best of the DIE HARD films, his unique ability to take command of a film and infuse it with enough presence to allow our buy-in.  Not only that, but his character occupies a really well made and crafty story, an action thriller that’s a lot like a well-coiled machine: solidly constructed, well realized it its design, and executed to deliver what it promises.  HOSTAGE, like an earlier thriller from 2005 – ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 – works as a hard-boiled, edgy, and nerve-shredding film that works very successfully, and it works even better because of a script that does a very respectable job of keeping you in your seat, never bored, and challenging and exciting you with its clever twists and turns.  There’s never a tedious moment in it, and the final product is a film that is very enjoyable, so much to the point that you are willing to forgive its few implausibilities.  It’s really an immersing and involving police procedural. 

As the film opens we are introduced to Willis’ character – Jeff Talley - one of the finest LAPD hostage negotiator’s around.  The opening of the film features a rather tough and suspenseful standoff with a lone gunman in an inner city neighborhood.  When his feverous attempts at bringing the situation to a swift resolution fail, disaster strikes which leads to two of the hostages being executed (one being a very young boy).  Not being able to stand having any deaths on his conscience, not to mention being plagued with not being successful on “his watch”, Jeff decides to remove himself from the coarse and harsh reality of LA and later moves (a year after the incident) to Bristo Camino, a tiny little habitat away from his troubled past.  There he finds what amounts to be a tedious desk job as the local sheriff, a far cry from his previous days as a big city negotiator. 

The film sort of plays a fresh spin on the cop’s life.  In most police genre pictures the wife and kids despise the idea of the husband and father placing his life on the line in a dangerous job on a daily basis.  In HOSTAGE’s case, the family actually resents the fact that his new lifestyle has changed so abruptly.  Not much happens to Jeff in Bristo, and that kind of suits him rather fine, but it’s not altogether acceptable for his wife, Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) and his daughter, Amanda (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real life daughter, who has an amazing resemblance to her mother, Demi Moore).  The Talley family is having “issues”, so much that they only seem to live with Jeff half of the time, which Amanda seems to have no problem with.  Needless to say, problems on the home front is the only type of concerns that Jeff now faces, that is until a suspicious vehicle shows up at the house of a millionaire accountant. 

It seems that three grubby and up-to-no-good looking teenagers in a rundown pick-up truck have been stalking a rich father and her daughter.  Not happy when she flips one of them the bird at a nearby store, the three teens decide to follow them back home to the father’s luxurious mansion that lies along a hillside.  Of course, it's one of those impenetrable fortresses that only a James Bond villain could live in, but the naïve and inane teens decide to go anyway and forge a simple plan: steal the dad’s luxurious Cadillac.  The teens, Mars (Ben Foster), a slimy, evil looking young man with past problems with the law, and two brothers Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) and Kevin (Marshall Allman) decide to combine their forces to raid the house.  Kevin is the do-gooder who only follows his brother for reasons kind of left unexplained, and nevertheless continues on despite his strong level of resentment towards his brother’s vicious and malevolent ways. 

Well, the fairly frivolous trio make their way into the home when the father (Kevin Polluck, who like Willis is rescuing himself here from THE WHOLE TEN YARDS with a grounded performance) and kids Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and young Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) manage to turn on the silent alarm and call the police.  The teens, realizing what has happened, then take the father and kids as hostages.  When a local police officer comes to check things out, Mars brutally slays the woman.  By the time Jeff and company arrive, the teens are firing away at them with a hallo of bullets.  Willis, being one of the first members of the response team, establishes contact with the boys inside.  However, having gone through a terrible experience with his last hostage situation, he has no desire to continue.  When the sheriff’s department comes in full force, he retires tactical command and heads for home. 

However, it is here where the screenplay takes a remarkable and unexpected turn that sort of separates this film from other similar genre films.

S-P-O-I-L-E-R   W-A-R-N-I-N-G: Unfortunately for Jeff, he quickly returns to the hillside mansion and demands that he re-assumes tactical command, but why?  His prime and direct motivation is not to help with the mission, but rather for deep, personal reasons.  On his way back home originally it appears that mysterious assailants have kidnapped Willis’ own wife and daughter and now hold them hostage!  It is here where the film becomes a hostage film within a hostage film, so to speak.  These new antagonists demand one thing from Willis:  Go back to the mansion and obtain a rather valuable DVD that contains something very important encrypted on it. The catch is that no one is allowed to leave the mansion, and if so then Jeff’s family is dead.  Now Jeff is faced with a nearly paralyzing dilemma:  he has to both work with the teen assailants to get what he wants and save his own family while, secretly, work with the local police to secure the mansion and ensure the survival of the rich family inside and the apprehension of the teens.    

What then immerges is not just a typical, paint-by-numbers hostage thriller, but a rather ingeniously scripted one that takes full advantage of the elements of the genre and throws a wrench into the machine and sends it down a completely unexpected path.  The clever and decisive twists in the plot help add a layer of extra tension and momentum to the film, which allows for it to have even greater dramatic payoffs later.  This also allows adding an extra layer of dimension to Willis’s character. 

People have been making some superficial comparisons to DIE HARD when discussing this film, but the two are really not very much alike, especially in regards to the main character.  Like McClane, Willis efficiently conveys credibility and our empathy for him, which goes a long way to help establish equal credence to a plot that contains some loopholes and leaps of logic, all which are generally forgivable here.  His Jeff is more layered than the tough guy in McClane and a bit more tortured, and the fresh aspect about him is the fact that his motivations are not as clean as a typical action hero protagonist.  He wants to save the rich man’s family, to be sure, but his motivations are a bit more selfish than that. 

HOSTAGE is directed with a considerable amount of confidence, flair, and style by first-timer Florent Emilio Siri, and it’s a very firm and successful debut film for him.  Research on the IMDB shows that his past directorial duties included making the successful SPLINTER CELL video games, and you get an impression of his vivid and graphic storytelling style in HOSTAGE.  The open credit sequence is striking and original, which casts the title cards against the oppressive and film-noir images of cityscapes, all in harsh black n’ white with touches of vivid reds.  This does a good job of embodying the type of thriller that will follow: one that is taut, fierce, and gloomy.  Siri manages to create much trepidation and expectancy with individual moments and paces the film very well.  This is not one of those “watch checker” films.  The scope of his visual style is impressive and his command of the script is also noteworthy and he does such an assured job that you really sort of overlook things that bend reality, like the resiliency and smartness of young Tommy in the house, the sheer stupidity of the teens, the convenience of the Polluck character who is more a plot device than a realized figure, and an ending that feels both vaguely routine, yet ultimately rings with a bit of truth. 

HOSTAGE represents one of the better thrillers of the young year thus far and is a good embodiment of what film critic Roger Ebert refers to as a “bruised forearm” film, one where the tension and action is so heightened and intense that your date at the theatre will no doubt bruise you arm by grabbing it so tight.  Despite being seldom plausible, HOSTAGE is an very entertaining film that succeeds on its levels with its good performances (especially by Willis, severely underrated in these type of films, and by Ben Foster, who creates a really good lunatic villain), its stylized and expressive visuals, and by its satisfying and involving plot that makes you think its heading one way and then takes a 180 degree  turn and surprises you.  HOSTAGE plays up to many strengths: the determined acting and presence of Willis, a sure-fire directorial eye, and a fiendishly constructed narrative that gets the job done.  The film is as satisfying of a thriller as you’d want and expect, and you’ll never look at that copy of HEAVEN CAN WAIT on your DVD shelf the same way again.

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