OK, I admit it. I had a very good time watching the new Bruce Willis vehicle Hostage. But I strongly doubt that the filmmakers intended for said good time to consist of raucous laughter at the over-the-top, melodramatic shenanigans in this movie. No, I suspect their intention was to produce something more akin to nail-biting suspense, but here there’s a sizable gap between intentions and results.
And while much of this problem is the fault of screenwriter Doug Richardson (you expected less from the scribe who gave us Bad Boys and Welcome to Mooseport?), even more can be laid at the feet of “hotshot” French filmmaker Florent Emilio Siri, whose 2002 film, The Nest, is highly regarded in some quarters.
We’re talking highly regarded — to the degree that it’s common to see accolades claiming that Siri “shows Hollywood how to make an action movie.” Not having seen The Nest, I’ve no idea of the veracity of that claim, but if it’s true, something has gotten lost in translation since then. Perhaps, like certain wines, Siri doesn’t travel well. And perhaps, Hollywood showed him how to make a star-vehicle action movie at its most generic.
And that’s not entirely unlikely. The corporate world’s view of the movie’s audience may not be that far off. Consider this: I recently saw a moviegoer accidentally get two tickets to The Passion Recut by asking for two tickets to “the Mel Gibson movie,” when he really wanted “the Bruce Willis movie.” The line between right-wing action-movie star with hair and right-wing action-movie star without hair must be a very thin one, though I doubt this incident would do much for either star’s ego.
Regardless, Siri’s new film is so generic that it would work just as well — or just as badly — with Willis, Gibson, or even Steven Segal. The movie starts with a tired premise: Hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis with hair) is traumatized when a standoff goes horribly wrong, so all his hair vanishes and he becomes police chief in a sleepy little town where there’s never any crime. This, of course, means there’s going to be a crime of some note, and then — surprise! — Talley will find himself playing hostage negotiator once again.
The crime involves three “kids” who break into the unbelievably posh, fortress-like home of mob-connected accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak in a restful performance he gets to literally sleep through). The criminals take Smith, his son Tommy (Jimmy Bennett, Daddy Day Care) and daughter Jennifer (Michelle Horn, Mental Hygiene) hostage. The motivation for their actions is never all that clear. Is it to steal the car? To get back at the daughter for giving them the cold shoulder? To show their disdain for rich folks? Or, is it primarily because the plot calls for the family to be held hostage? All of these motivations — especially the last one — seem to play a role.
The hostage-takers get more than they bargained for, due to Smith’s high-tech house and his ties to the mob. Plus, two of them haven’t quite figured out that their partner in crime (played by a scenery-chomping Ben Foster, The Punisher) is a stock movie psycho, even though his hair alone ought to have tipped them off.
Soon the cliches are flying faster than the bullets, and I’ll give the filmmakers credit for not missing a single one — from the “dead meat” ethnic cop who comes to check out the silent alarm, to the wall of water sculpture that you know will meet a spectacular end before things are over, to the little rich girl who doesn’t seem to grasp the tactlessness of baiting the psycho. Hostage covers these cliches with far more care than it devotes to mere coherence or even marginal believability.
There’s a whole separate plot about an encoded disc sought by the mob that’s far more functional than realistic. We’re supposed to believe that Smith would hide this disc in the DVD case for Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait — presumably so it could later be confused with Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which just happens to also be on the shelf. Worse, like so much else in the film, there’s no payoff from this device.
A similar setup without a payoff happens with the mobsters. The film goes out of its way to present a shadowy Mr. Big and a bunch of black-hooded henchmen, so the viewer comes to expect some last-reel revelation of their identities — but that never happens.
Then there’s the house, which is honeycombed with more ridiculous secret passages and office building-sized duct-work than the hoariest “old dark house” murder mystery of 70 years ago. And, of course, there’s psycho boy, who by the film’s hysterically overheated last act is on a par with Freddy or Jason.
Siri seems to have operated on the principle that all this might be overlooked if he smothered the raging nonsense in gobs of borrowed style, but all this does is draw attention to his attempts at style (the man dearly loves whiting out the screen, as if aliens had just landed, for scene transitions). The opening credits are pretty clever, even if they’re just a curious mix of the credits on the 1936 film My Man Godfrey and any number of comic-book movies.
And what of Mel Gibson … er … Bruce Willis? Well, he gets a few one-liners, some action folderol and a few good crying scenes. I leave it to the viewer to decide whether this sorrow represents fine acting or Willis’ reaction to the script. Rated R for strong violence, language and some drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke