Hostage (2005)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/03/05 19:06:07

"At least Bruce Willis isn't in full-on sleepwalking mode."
3 stars (Just Average)

I'm getting old. That's the only way I can explain it. I have lived sufficiently long that when confronted by a movie like Hostage, I don't find the action much fun any more. I look at it and think putting kids in danger is kind of tacky. I just generally do and think all sorts of generally old-fartsy things.

As formula thrillers go, Hostage isn't bad at all, I guess. It's got a snazzy title sequence, slick production values, and a star in Bruce Willis who is more than capable of elevating standard material. It needs another star, though - there's no bad guy who seems worthy of pulling Willis's strings. Indeed, the next-biggest star (Kevin Pollack) spends most of the movie unconscious. It means that a thriller that should be a game of cat and mouse is short a small mammal, someone who seems like a legit threat to beat Willis's character, at least within a movie.

The structure will seem familiar early. Jeff Talley (Willis) is L.A.'s top hostage negotiator, but after a disastrous standoff that leaves the shooter's wife and son dead, he takes a job as the chief of police in a small, low-crime community. His wife tries to be understanding, but his daughter hates it. Soon, though, a group of teens stage a home invasion, knocking out the single father who may have a less-than-reputable source of income (Pollack), and when the police respond to the burglar alarm, they take the kids hostage - and just by coincidence, the girl is the same age as Talley's daughter, while the boy is the same age as the kid killed in the opening segment. Talley turns it over to the state police, but when the father's employers kidnap Talley's family, he's forced to re-insert himself into the situation.

Thrillers don't necessarily need a strong villain, but having one can't hurt. The hostage-taking kids don't qualify; in order of descending threateningness, they're a nasty but not terribly bright sociopath in training (Ben Foster), a not terribly bright punk kid (Jonathan Tucker), and his not terribly bright or particularly enthused about causing trouble little brother (Marshall Allman). Though the mountain house they're occupying is a veritable fortress, they're not going to present much of a challenge; they can't even be bothered to actually watch their hostages most of the time. So it's almost a relief when the mob guys show up; they at least might have some brains. Unfortunately, methodical as they are, they don't really have much in terms of means of keeping an eye on Talley, and it's kind of frustrating that doesn't do more to counter them while they're not looking. They're also faceless and lacking any sort of charisma; even if they're got the resources to win this game, the audience is never really that worried, because they don't rank near Willis on the Hollywood pecking order.

(I know we're not supposed to think about such things, but we do. You pay your $7.50, you notice whose name comes before the title and whose names come after it, and you know that one movie star can only be defeated by another.)

Though the villains aren't terribly competent, the filmmakers not involved in writing those villains, by and large, are. Sure, they go for the cheap "well, you know they're evil because they hurt a cute dog" moment, but they do build a nice set piece or two. Scenes meant to be suspenseful generally are, though they could have been more so if every character's IQ was increased by ten points or so.

The writing just tends to stink. I was all set to give it credit early on when Pollack's character gets pistol-whipped and the movie portrays it as an actual serious head injury. That's the last bit of flirting with credibility that the movie will undertake, unfortunately. There's a lot of stupid to be done after that, from apparently indestructible villains, nebbishy civilians (with serious head injuries) successfully engaging in gunplay, and the aforementioned bizarre plans. Talley doesn't disobey the folks who've taken his family hostage in little ways they won't detect that may gain him an advantage, but when in big ways that they'll be able to see on TV. It's irritating.

The cast is OK. Bruce Willis doesn't give his full "good script and director who's not going to settle for half-assed" best, but he doesn't mail it in, either. He's got a good moment of looking pained as he asks a ten year old kid to do something dangerous, and I wish we'd seen more of that from him. Ben Foster gives decent psycho, and Jimmy Bennett manages to sell his hyper-competent kid.

Director Florent Emilio Siri (whose credits mostly seem to be videogame cut scenes) handles the choreography well enough, but he misses the fun. Sure, it's a grim situation, but it's not thrilling like a thriller should be. The hairs on the back of my neck never stand up. He can't convince us to move up in our seats a little because we're thinking ooh, that's a clever move; I wonder what Bruce/the faceless bad guys will do to counter it.

It's not a bad movie; the filmmakers don't actually screw up an inherently suspenseful situation. Neither, however, do they grab us and create the burning need to see what's going to happen next.

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