From 1990's "Desperate Hours" to 2004's "Cellular
" to 2005's "Assault on Precinct 13
," the former and latter of which were remakes, motion pictures about everyday people finding themselves taken hostage against their will has been a tried-and-true staple of the thriller genre. "Hostage" doesn't add much that is new to the formula, and has one too many wobbly plot devicesa "Heaven Can Wait" DVD, anyone?but director Florent Siri makes up for the script's deficiencies by bringing an adrenaline shot of stylish inspiration and technical virtuosity to the high-stakes proceedings.
One year after working a hostage situation that ended in tragedy, former LAPD negotiator Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) has switched to the less stressful job of police chief in an upscale, cliffside community in Ventura County. Not able to fully recover from his past's failures at work, Jeff has found his marriage to Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) and relationship with daughter Amanda (Bruce's real-life daughter Rumer Willis) crumbling.
What begins as just another quiet Monday at the station abruptly turns anything but when Mr. Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his two children, 8-year-old Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) and teenager Jennifer (Michelle Horn), are attacked and held hostage at their multimillion dollar fortress of a home. The captors, a trio of young thieves led by the psychotic Mars (Ben Foster) and piggybacked by brothers Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) and Kevin (Marshall Allman), have come to steal the family's car, but when a visiting officer is shot and killed, they become trapped in the house, too, faced with a murder and no apparent way out of their escalating crimes. The bets are suddenly raised again when Jeff's own wife and daughter are kidnapped, their lives in jeopardy if he is not able to retrieve a disc Mr. Smith owes them from the surrounded house.
"Hostage" is a hit-and-miss action-thriller. When it is good, it crackles and pops with literally breathless, grip-your-armrest-style intensity. When it falters, as in the ludicrous coincidence that three petty criminals would take over a house on the very same day that Mr. Smith is targeted by an unrelated group of murderous bad guys, it stumbles pretty noticably. The entire subplot of Jeff Talley's own family being kidnapped and held for ransom is unnecessary, taking up too much screen-time that would have been better spent concentrating on the central hostage scenario of the Smith family.
As Officer Jeff Talley, a man who must save the Smiths if he is ever to free himself of the guilt he feels for not being able to save a different family a year earlier, Bruce Willis (2003's "Tears of the Sun
") is focused and plausible, only jumping into over-the-top melodramatic histrionics during a key climactic scene. For the most part, though, Willis does well in projecting his character's deep regrets and fears, never more so than when he realizes his wife and daughter have suddenly been put in harm's way. It isn't the actor's fault that he has been saddled with the least interesting portions of the film; when he knocks horns with another police chief (Tina Lifford) over superiority, the movie screeches to a cliche-ridden halt.
Every time "Hostage" enters back into the spacious, glass-encased frames of the mansion and focuses on the dilemmas faced by both the criminals and the captive children, the film is reinvigorated with kinetic energy and sometimes unanticipated graphic violence that keeps the viewer on edge. A sequence in which Tommy and Jennifer are stalked by Mars through the air shaft tunnels inside the walls of their home ranks as one of the most expertly-staged, tension-filled cinematic chases in memory. So brilliant is this scene from a visceral point of view that it is destined to leave every audience member physically drained once the chase has subsided.
Jimmy Bennett (2004's "The Polar Express
"), as the equal parts resourceful and clumsy young Tommy, steals his scenes. Bennett is a natural young actor with no signs of unctuousness; it is his very childhood innocence that makes for a captivatingly frightening offset to the possible darkness of human nature he discovers and comes face to face with. As older sister Jennifer, Michelle Horn (TV's "Strong Medicine") is smartly cast; she doesn't look like a wafer-thin Hollywood actress, but a genuine teenage girl, and Horn more than holds her own against the more experienced performers around her. Finally, Ben Foster (2004's "The Punisher
") deserves some sort of creep-factor award for his savagely demented turn as Mars. Watch Foster as the sweet teenage protagonist in 2001's "Get Over It
" and then watch his eerily fiendish performance here, and one will find an actor of amazing range and capabilities.
It is evident in every shot of "Hostage" that it has been made by true visual craftsmen, namely French director Florent Siri and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci. The opening titles, an animated semi-rendition of the ones found in 2002's "Panic Room
," set the elegantly moody stage for what is the come, and the lyrical beauty of Coltellacci's camerawork and character-framing, alternately sweeping and effectively still when need be, carries straight through to the end credits. The engrossing style "Hostage" brandishes is its reason for being a motion picture worth recommending, lifting what could have been, and occasionally still is, a thoroughly generic, far-fetched suspenser into something a bit more pulsating, gritty, and cathartic than originally meets the brain.