After Tears of the Sun and The Whole Ten Yards, Judge Joel Pearce wanted to take Bruce Willis hostage. Fortunately, Bruce has redeemed himself with this tight action flick and spared Joel the necessity of extreme action.
Every second counts.
This is the kind of movie we don't see much anymore. A thriller with no pretensions, Hostage is content to deliver exactly what the audience expects. It's in no way destined to become a perennial favorite, but it delivers two hours of tense action, fun twists and turns, a solid script and a number of excellent performances. In other words, it's a summer blockbuster released during the wrong part of the year.
Facts of the Case
After years as a prime hostage negotiator in L.A., Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis, Sin City) loses one too many victims and takes a chief position in a small county. Far away from the dangers of the city, he hopes to pass the rest of his career witnessing as little crime as possible.
This plan goes to hell when a particularly nasty hostage situation arises, forcing him to return to what he does best. Dennis (Jonathan Tucker, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Kevin (Marshall Allman, Little Black Book) are two local troublemakers who have recently met up with Mars (Ben Foster, The Punisher). Dennis, trying to impress Mars, decides that they should ramp up their carjacking and hit a better target.
The target is the SUV of Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak, The Whole Nine Yards), a very rich accountant who lives with his two kids Tommy and Jennifer in a nice house built into the side of a mountain. When the silent alarm gets tripped and Mars shoots the cop that comes to investigate, Dennis and Kevin find themselves in a lot deeper than they could have imagined. To make matters even more complicated, Walter Smith is involved in some shady deals involving important files that need to get to very dangerous people really quickly. Now it's up to Jeff Talley to figure out a way to get the situation solved without the Smith family getting killed.
Well, 2005 is officially comeback year for Bruce Willis. After disappointing appearances in Tears of the Sun and The Whole Ten Yards, his performances in Sin City and Hostage represent a return to the bald-headed badass we remember from the Die Hard series and Pulp Fiction. He's always had a knack for injecting humanity into his action heroes, and his work as Jeff Talley is no exception. Part of the role of a hostage negotiator is to assess risk: whether or not there is enough chance of rescuing the hostages in a SWAT raid, or whether the best thing is to keep the perpetrator talking. This training shows itself when Talley needs to make major decisions. With each possibility for ending the conflict, he needs to place the hostages at greater risk. Even when the plot twists get crazy at the halfway point, those decisions remain at the core of Hostage.
Derivative genre pictures aren't necessarily a bad thing, but they require good performances, a tight script, and competent direction to succeed. Hostage has all three. In addition to the strong performance from Bruce Willis, every member of the supporting cast works hard to make their roles stand out. Jonathan Tucker is excellent as Dennis, a risk taker in way too deep for his own good. Jimmy Bennett (The Polar Express) is charismatic and believable as Tommy Smith, the kid who uses his secret hiding places to get information out. The only weak link is Mars. It's not Ben Foster's fault, who performs the role with a freakish intensity, but the role would fit better in a slasher film than in a police thriller. None of the characters in the house seem like professionals, which makes the situation even more frightening. As the situation unfolds, they need to make snap decisions, each of which could turn out deadly.
A great script allows these characters the depth that is lacking in so many thrillers. The film was adapted from a novel by Robert Crais, and while Hostage doesn't feel like a book adaptation, the details reveal that there is much more going on beneath the surface. Dennis and Kevin's interactions show the results of them growing up with an abusive father. We don't hear much about that situation, but it works as added complexity for the roles. A number of details aren't explained, but the whole film feels better assembled than most of the cop movies I have seen lately. The plot often twists and turns, and just enough information is fed to the audience. It never gets confusing, but it also doesn't get bogged down in details.
In tactical action movies, competent direction is also really important. Florent Siri is a relatively new director, but he has done an excellent job. His previous credits include the Splinter Cell series of video games, a history that has actually helped greatly to prepare him for Hostage. He is very aware of the location, giving the audience a clear tactical understanding of the house. He keeps the film moving throughout, allowing us to get to know the characters through the action, rather than through expositions. There are no wasted moments, no extra information. At moments, he tosses in some very heavy-handed symbolism, but it's all in good fun. The cinematography is really slick, too, skillfully highlighting the reactions of the characters and important visual details.
Miramax's video transfer does a fine job of capturing that cinematography. The color transfer is spot on, and the image is sharp and clean. On a very close inspection, there is the slightest amount of edge enhancement, and a couple of the darker scenes show some compression flaws. On the most part, though, this is a very strong video transfer. The sound is just as good, with a lot of depth, clear dialogue and good surround usage.
A commentary track with Siri is detailed and focused on interpretation. Some of it is a little too centered on the cinematography choices, but it certainly reveals his vision for Hostage. A production featurette has fifteen minutes of the usual fluff. Deleted and extended scenes fill out the characters and plot. Some of them are excellent scenes, and it must have been hard to chop them. It was important to keep the film tight, though, and it was wise to keep these scenes out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have a few minor complaints about Hostage. The end really does lose the plausibility of the first half, and although it's still an entertaining film, it still would have been great without some of the silliness. With a more suitable end, this could have transcended the genre and offered something more.
Even though it doesn't do anything to change the thriller genre, Hostage is an exciting and entertaining way to spend two hours of your life. If you've been disappointed with the lackluster action movies in the past few years, give it a rental. If you love action movies, even the lackluster offerings of the past few years, you're going to love it.
Not guilty, though I suspect Florent Siri is capable of even better things.
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