There’s nothing wrong with trying to inject some solemnity and sophistication into an action movie. But if you don’t do it right, you end up with Hostage. It’s a movie that behaves like a petulant teenager who wants to be seen as a grown-up and demands to be treated as such, but then goes and gets roaring drunk on cheap beer, vomits all over the yard and crashes Dad’s car into a lamppost in the high school parking lot.
Hostage fools you at first, like a sudden A on a report card, giving you hope that there might be something to this I’m-not-a-kid-anymore stuff. When we meet Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis), he’s a hostage negotiator in Los Angeles, where—in a rather dramatic and intense opening sequence—he loses control of the situation and a young boy is killed. The cinematic shock of that occurrence—little kids simply do not die violently onscreen in Hollywood films—instantly gets undermined by the Symbolism! of Willis’ hands getting actually, literally stained with the child’s blood. Willis handles the scene just fine, never letting the melodrama of guilt become the performance, but director Florent Emilio Siri can’t let go of the image of Talley’s bloodied hands. He lingers on it, Lady MacBeth-style, as if we didn’t understand that Talley would be pulling his hair out in penance later.
That should have been a clue, but I missed it in my continued hopefulness. I also missed the clue of Talley’s literally (apparently) having pulled his hair out in penance, because when we next meet Talley, months later, he is now a completely bald and clean-shaven small-town Ventura County police chief, whereas before, as a city boy, he had a full head of hair and a full beard. I didn’t think much about it at all, except as a new-start-in-life kind of thing, but in retrospect. … Hope can be a terrible thing when it blinds you like this.
But things continue to unfold in such a way that makes you suspect you could leave the movie alone in the house for a weekend and it wouldn’t throw wild parties and trash the family room. In this new town of Talley’s there is no crime, except tonight, when a couple of teens decide, for fun, to do a home invasion. This turns into a hostage situation with helicopters circling overhead and TV news trucks rushing to the scene and Talley freaking out because he got away from L.A. exactly because he couldn’t handle this life-and-death stuff anymore. It’s all fine and classy and briskly paced and scary. There’s some moderately original character stuff with Talley and his semi-estranged wife and sulky teenage daughter (Serena Scott Thomas and Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real-life daughter), and the home-invading kids, the crazy Mars (Ben Foster) leading the sweet-but-dumb Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) astray.
And then, this almost-elegant, semi-fascinating psychological action thriller goes completely Looney Tunes. The owner of the invaded house (Kevin Pollak) turns out to be a crook, and his fellow bad guys who want something from him have by now, of course, seen the TV news and know that what they need is still inside the house, so the bad guys kidnap Talley’s family and hold them hostage until Talley can bring them the thing. Plucky little Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) is secretly talking to Talley from a cell phone inside the crawl spaces of the invaded house. You’ve heard of a panic room? This is a panic house, and it’s ridiculous. Soon, Tommy transforms into the littlest Army Ranger.
All that is only at the cheap-beer-and-vomiting stage. The totaling of Dad’s car is still to come; it features explosions, fire and an unkillable bad guy, for starters. At this point, while the film is hoping we’ll be pondering the many facets of what being a hostage means—including, I suspect, whether we are held hostage by the love of our families—we can’t get past the absurd coincidence of those idiot kids having, purely by chance, invaded the home of a mobbed-up guy. Are these the unluckiest kids ever, or can we blame screenwriter Doug Richardson (adapting Robert Crais’ novel)? How many hostage situations can even a movie called Hostage be permitted before you go, “Waaaaait a second ...”
HOSTAGE ** Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollak, Jimmy Bennett. Rated PG-13