|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 June 2005|
Robert Crais went from writing television to writing novels and achieved critical and commercial success with a series of novels about a cop named Elvis. It was clear that he wanted to sell a book to the movies—and with the prices producers are willing to pay, who can blame him? So he began writing movies that were, unfortunately, all too clearly intended to be sold as movies. They involved stark, melodramatic situations, very clearly delineated good guys (even if troubled) and bad guys (even if charismatic). And sure enough, his novel “Hostage” sold.
It read like a Bruce Willis movie, a variation on the “Die Hard” movies, so it was hardly surprising that Bruce Willis was cast in the lead. He’s Jeff Talley, the toughest, most confident hostage negotiator in the LAPD; at least he’s tough and confident until a hostage situation ends up with the culprit and his hostages, including a boy, all dead.
A year later and Jeff is now the sheriff of an outlying Los Angeles suburb; the makers of the film ignored Crais’ very carefully designed geography and went in literally another direction, toward Oxnard. As we rejoin him, Jeff’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real daughter) are leaving him. He’s distraught, but at least he’s a cop with not much cop stuff to do: he and the others on his staff make jokes about how crime-free their district is.
But then brothers Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) and the younger Kevin (Marshall Allman), riding around in a battered pickup with Dennis’ weird, scary friend Mars (Ben Foster) catch sight of wealthy Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) in his SUV with his teenage daughter Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and young son Tommy (Jimmy Bennett). They follow the Smiths to their lavish, isolated home up a canyon. The trio of crooks take over the home and knock Walter out. Meanwhile, a patrol cop from Talley’s office spots their pickup and radios it in—then Mars shoots her.
Everything quickly escalates: cops and other lawmen arrive and surround the house as much as possible, which isn’t much, perched as it is at the end of a canyon road that leads nowhere else. Helicopters roar over. On the phone, Talley tries to negotiate with the hyped-up Dennis, who didn’t want to be involved in a murder. The house itself is ultra-modern, full of high-tech gadgetry, primarily a top-of-the-line security system. It’s also decorated inventively, with walls of waters and fish tanks you can see through. But it’s also woefully underlit, the director’s means of trying to achieve a film noir visual style.
Time passes. Inside the house, Mars looms over Jennifer, while the bright Tommy finds a cell phone, and calls out. Talley is taken off the case, but is then confronted by mysterious types who have kidnapped HIS wife and child. They want a special CD we saw Walter prepare and camouflage in his DVD collection. Or they’ll kill Talley’s family.
The plot hinges on endless contrived coincidences, not quite as many in the novel. There, the three guys shoot someone at a convenience store and climb a wall not far away, winding them up in the Smith’s back yard. Here the crooks target the Smiths deliberately. But we still have to buy a lot of unlikely turns of plot: the boy is smart enough to secretly call out with the cell phone; Smith just happens to be a crook himself (he’s a mob accountant in the novel; in the movie, just what he is and who he works for is not specified) who not only has information his bosses desperately want, but a whole hell of a lot of cash on hand that dazzles Dennis.
The novel went into a good deal of backstory regarding the three intruders; the movie skips over that and alters the personalities of the three. Here, Mars is driven largely by lust; in the novel, he was a self-centered psychopath. Either way, he’s an unlikely character to team up with novice bad guy Dennis, and it’s even more unlikely that Dennis would have younger brother Kevin, up to this point innocent of crime, along with him. And of course, there’s the biggest coincidence: the story depends largely on the negotiating skills of a burned-out hostage negotiator.
If you can buy all this, the novel is a speedy, forgettable read; the movie, however, is heavily laden with film noir-style shadowy pretentiousness, boasted about on the self-serving commentary track by director Siri. He seems very ready to praise himself for almost every scene that comes along. He also demonstrates the big gulf that can yawn between American moviemakers and those from Europe; they might love American movies, but their decisions are unlike those Americans would make.
Take an early scene: we’re following the pickup with the three intruders; they pass Bruce Willis in his police department SUV; the camera keeps following—it’s one long take—and soon the Smith car passes the pickup, too. For director Siri, this was a unifying concept; American filmmakers would be likely to regard it as going too far, venturing out into corny improbability. Also, Siri had the brothers made younger to connect them to the Columbine killers—an idea that American filmmakers would flee from, screaming in terror. And he draws, rather oafishly, links between the intruders and Willis: one of them refers to the Smiths as “F*cking rich people;” a moment later, Willis uses the same phrase also to describe the Smiths. Siri seems to regard this as insightful rather than hackneyed.
He says he had the people who bankroll Smith and kidnap Talley’s family changed from the Mob to shadowy, ill-defined figures, intending to avoid a cliché. He did duck that bullet, but ran into another one. The title, of course, refers not just to the people in the house, but to their captors, to Willis’ family and to Willis himself—they’re all held captive by circumstances. But in the novel, the people down in Palm Springs who order the kidnapping of Willis’ family to obtain that CD of revelatory information are themselves hostages of the mob higher-ups back East that THEY answer to. Crais was saying that many people can be hostages, such as almost everyone in this story. But Siri misses these extra dimensions of hostage-ness.
The director has a strong French accent—he refers to screenwriter Doug Richardson as “RiCHARDson”—which may make him difficult to understand for some. He’s also tiresome in his unconscious boasting and his constant references to film noir. The other extras are negligible; once again, we see why deleted scenes were deleted, once again we see what extended scenes were shortened. The making-of is standard for today.
Willis clearly wanted to reestablish himself as a go-to guy for action/suspense thrillers; he had come off a series of boxoffice disappointments (“Hart’s War,” “Tears of the Sun,” “The Whole Ten Yards”) and clearly wanted to make himself bankable again. He largely did that, as “Hostage,” while not a hit, did quite well at the boxoffice and I’m sure will repeat its success on home video.
But Willis’ work here is well below his best. He wanders through the film with his jaw clenched and a look of sorrow either on his face or about to appear. It’s a very limited performance, a shame since Willis has at times indicated his limits are far broader than most assume. Here, he constantly looks as though he’s suffering from hemorrhoids, not a man in fear of the death of his family.
But he’s also an actor who can convince us that he is, if not brilliant, extremely clever and inventive—the “Die Hard” movies are driven by these characteristics. So we do buy that he is trying hard to negotiate both with the trio inside the house and with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped his own family. Still and all, the central problem of casting an action hero in an action movie remains: we know he will triumph by the end. The suspense is seeing what hell he has to go through to get there, and as there’s a lot of hell here, “Hostage” is generally very suspenseful.
The cast is generally professional, though the three actors who play the intruders overdo almost everything. On the other hand, young Jimmy Bennett constantly seems real, in the moment, and a smart boy who’s surviving by his wits and his willingness to trust Talley. It’s a little incongruous when he acts as if he thinks a video game is real, but that’s the one unreal element of this young pro’s performance.
Though he overdoes the film noir visuals—sooner or later, everyone is seen in deep shadows, everyone is backlit with orange—Siri does handle the plot elements very well. But the coincidences and unlikely contrivances keep “Hostage” well below the level of the best action/cop movies—such as “Die Hard.”