I’ve been fascinated with hostage movies for a long time. Perhaps it is because 13 years ago I witnessed a real-life hostage situation. While working in a small Pennsylvania strip mall, trying to put myself through school, a man with a rifle walked into the K-Mart on the opposite end of the parking lot. Employees and customers fled, but some were not able to escape. We locked the doors of our store and I sat in the window for hours watching the scene unfold. I saw people fleeing from the building in fear. I saw armed SWAT team members hiding on the tops of buildings and behind soda machines. I saw the assailant being slammed to the ground and handcuffed after finally surrendering. Of course, no movie can match the drama of seeing the real thing (and I thank God that no one was hurt) but hostage situations make for intense stories. Hostage is just the latest to tackle the subject. It arrives with little advance hype, which is too bad because this is an effective picture that deserves to find an audience.
Bruce Willis stars as Jeff Talley, a hostage negotiator. In the early scenes, we see him attempt to talk down a man who is holding a woman and child at gunpoint. When Talley makes a bad call that results in the negotiation going terribly wrong, he quits the job altogether. A year later, he works as the police chief in a small California town. His relationship with his wife Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) is shaky at best, and his relationship with daughter Amanda (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real daughter) is even worse.
Trouble arrives when three young carjackers – Mars Krupcheck (Ben Foster) and brothers Dennis and Kevin Kelly (Jonathan Tucker and Marshall Allman) - spot an Escalade being driven by Walter Smith (Kevin Pollack). They follow Smith to his mansion in the hills, where they break into the garage and try to steal the car. When they can’t find the keys, they go inside. Smith’s young son Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) spots them and trips a silent alarm. When the cops show up, there is nothing for them to do but take Smith, Tommy, and teenage daughter Jennifer (Michelle Horn) hostage.
Talley arrives on the scene when it is first called in, but retreats after a negotiator arrives. On his way back home, he is kidnapped by some masked men. They are organized crime members who order him to obtain a DVD on which Smith has placed some crucial information. This will mean going back to the scene and reinserting himself as the negotiator. Then the bombshell is dropped: the masked men have kidnapped Jane and Amanda and will kill them if Talley does not succeed in retrieving the DVD. After returning to the home, where the hostage situation continues, Talley makes contact with Dennis and begins the tricky negotiation process.
There are some really clever twists and turns in Hostage. One of my favorites is the way that little Tommy hides in the ventilation ducts of the home, feeding Talley important information via a cell phone. There’s also a really neat twist involving the DVD case in which Smith hides the disc; Talley tells Tommy that it’s hidden inside a case for Heaven Can Wait and the boy discovers that there are two versions of that film on his dad’s shelf. These kinds of details help make Hostage intense. Rather than just going for standard hostage movie clichés, the screenplay (by Doug Richardson) tries to come up with clever plot points to keep us riveted.
The very thing that makes Hostage so good is the very same thing that may likely kill its chances at the box office: this film goes to some dark places. Audiences are conditioned to action movies where the drama is never too real or too dirty. In this case, that convention is turned on its ear. For instance, the Mars character turns out to be a real sicko who develops a disturbing sexual fixation with the teenage girl. He looks at her lustfully and openly refers to her as “my girl.” We know, in certain scenes, that he is considering having his way with her. Some folks might be troubled by this kind of content, but it added some depth for me. Although it goes to dark places, I found it somewhat refreshing to see a film that isn’t afraid to confront some of the hard realities of psychopathic behavior. The danger seems more real here than it does in most films with similar subject matter.
Unfortunately, Hostage loses some plausibility as it goes on; however, the movie continues to work because, even in the most unlikely scenes, it achieves a sense of eerie intensity. Director Florent Siri (a former video game director) and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci give the film a dark, brooding visual style that creates an ongoing ominous feel. There’s a shot toward the end of the movie where one of the characters walks down a fiery hallway carrying two Molotov cocktails. On one hand, the moment is a little too over-the-top; on the other hand, the image is undeniably creepy. There are other scenes similar to that. The visual style combines with the dark undercurrents and the unconventional plot twists to create a movie that made me feel rattled for two hours.
On top of it all, Bruce Willis gives a very good performance as Talley, who is haunted by the tragedy that occurred a year earlier and now must prevent another one from occurring. Action movies are nothing new for the actor, but rarely does he have such a solid character to play. It’s sometimes easy to forget how good Willis is; with Hostage he has found role to showcase not only his macho action-guy strengths but also his gift for creating three-dimensional characters. Willis produced the movie, so it’s clear that he knew he’d found a great part in a better-than-average action film. I hope that this one doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
( out of four)
Hostage is rated R for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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