Hostage (review)

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Don’t Pay the Ransom

Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to inject some solemnity and sophistication into an action movie, but god help you if you don’t do it right, because then you end up with the likes of Hostage, which is like a petulant teenager who wants to be seen as all grownup and mature and demands to be treated as such but then goes and gets roaring drunk on cheap beer, vomits all over the yard, and crashes Dad’s car into a lamppost in the high school parking lot.
And Hostage fools you at first, like a sudden A on a report card, gives you hope that there might be something to this I’m-not-a-kid-anymore stuff. Cuz, damn, color me silly, but I really like Bruce Willis — in spite of myself half the time, it’s true; but he’s done some intriguing work even in some awful movies (um, The Jackal, anyone?), and I keep wishing for him to have more chances to shine in movies that shine, too. This, as you may have already suspected from my subtle hints, is not one of those movies, but that’s not Willis’s fault (as an actor, that is: he’s also one of the film’s producers, which I guess means he approves of the disaster it becomes by the end). When we meet his Jeff Talley, he’s a hostage negotiator in Los Angeles, where, in a rather dramatic and intense opening sequence, he loses control of the situation and a young boy is killed. The cinematic shock of that — little kids simply do not die violently onscreen in Hollywood films, an unspoken taboo that’s very rarely breached — instantly gets undermined by the Symbolism! of Willis’s (Tears of the Sun, The Whole Ten Yards) hands getting actually, literally stained with the child’s blood. Willis handles the scene just fine, never letting the melodrama of guilt become the performance, but director Florent Emilio Siri can’t let go of the image of Talley’s bloodied hands, lingering on it, Lady MacBeth-style, as if we didn’t understand that Talley would be pulling his hair out in penance later.

That should have been a clue, but I missed it in my continued hopefulness. I also missed the clue of Talley’s literally (apparently) having pulled his hair out in penance, because when we next meet Talley, months later, he is now a completely bald and clean-shaven small-town Ventura Country police chief, whereas before, as a city boy, he had a full head of hair and a full beard. I didn’t think much about it at all, except as a new-start-in-life kind of thing, but in retrospect… Hope can be a terrible thing when it blinds you like this.

But things continue to unfold in such a way that makes you suspect you could leave the movie alone in the house for a weekend and it wouldn’t throw wild parties and trash the family room. In this new town of Talley’s, Camino Stinkin’ Rich Vista or somesuch, there is no crime, except tonight, when a couple of teens with no pretense of being grownup decide, for fun, to steal an SUV from a driveway, which turns into a home invasion, which turns into a hostage situation with helicopters circling overhead and TV news trucks rushing to the scene and Talley freaking out because he’s lost faith in himself and he got away from L.A. because he couldn’t handle this life-and-death stuff anymore blah blah blah. And it’s all fine and classy and briskly paced and scary — the home-invasion is nicely staged, if violation of one’s personal sanctuary by a demented lunatic and his stooge can be called “nice.” There’s some moderately original character stuff with Talley and his semiestranged wife and sulky teenaged daughter (Serena Scott Thomas and Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real-life daughter), and the home-invading kids, the batshit-crazy Mars (Ben Foster: The Punisher, Big Trouble) leading the sweet-but-dumb Dennis (Jonathan Tucker: Criminal, Stateside) majorly astray.

And then, this nearly cut-above, almost-elegant, semifascinating psychological action thriller goes completely Looney Tunes. The guy who owns the invaded house, Smith (Kevin Pollak: Santa Clause 2, Juwanna Mann), turns out to be a complete crook who’d been on the verge of walking out the door before the invasion to deliver something important to his fellow bad guys, who have by now of course seen the TV news and know that what they need is still inside the house, so the bad guys kidnap Talley’s family and hold them hostage until Talley can bring them the thing Smith was supposed to bring. Mars and Dennis discover a bag full of Smith’s dirty money and start demanding helicopters and such from the hostage negotiators outside. And plucky little Tommy Smith (Jimmy Bennett: The Polar Express, Daddy Day Care) is secretly talking to Talley from a cell phone inside the crawl spaces of the invaded house — you’ve heard of a panic room? this is a panic house, and it’s ridiculous — and transforms into the littlest Army Ranger.

All that is only at the cheap-beer-and-vomiting stage. The totaling of Dad’s car is still to come, if you can believe it (it features explosions, fire, and an unkillable bad guy, for starters). At this point, while the film is hoping we’ll be pondering the many facets of what being a hostage means — including, I suspect, whether we are held hostage by the love of our families — we can’t get past the absurd coincidence of those idiot kids having, purely by chance, invaded the home of a bad guy at the very moment of the deepening of his bad-guyness. Are these the unluckiest kids ever, or can we blame screenwriter Doug Richardson (Welcome to Mooseport), who’s adapting Robert Crais’s novel? How many hostage situations can even a movie called Hostage be permitted before you go, Waaaaait a second…

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