Monday, July 04, 2005

Hostage / **½ ( R )

Jeff Talley: Bruce Willis
Walter Smith: Kevin Pollak
Dennis Kelly: Jonathan Tucker
Mars: Ben Foster
Tommy Smith: Jimmy Bennett
Jennifer Smith: Michelle Horn
Kevin Kelly: Marshall Allman
Jane ! Talley: Serena Scott Thomas

Miramax presents a film directed by Florent Emilio Siri. Written by Doug Richardson. Based on the novel by Robert Crais. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated R (for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use).

Hostage is one of those difficult to review movies that contains much to admire and yet doesn’t work in the end. It segues back and forth between standard action thriller storytelling techniques and original ideas which alter an otherwise overdone genre. Here you can get the best of what a Bruce Willis actioner has to offer and an overwrought melodrama that inspires a rolling of the eyes back into your head. While I knew exactly how events would turn out in the end, I was continually surprised by how it got there; and had the last act not dripped the melodrama from its frothing mouth, I would have been grateful for the experience of watching an original take on an old dog that still has some new tricks in him.

Bruce Willis (Sin City) is Jeff Talley, a former L.A. hostage negotiator who has moved on to a small town police chief’s job after a botched hostage situation results in the death of a young boy. Despite domestic problems due to the change in life style, the quite town agrees with Talley, who is happy to turn over a surprising crime situation over to the county sheriff’s office when three thieves force their way into a local millionaire’s mansion and take him and his two children hostage. Talley is pulled back into the fray when the shady organization that employs the services of the millionaire, Walter Smith (Kevin Pollock, The Usual Suspects), kidnaps Talley’s family in order to force him to retrieve an important computer disc from the mansion.

This brief synopsis hardly reflects the multiple dramatic levels on which this thriller operates. The Talleys and the Smiths both represent similar family dynamics. The Talley’s seem on the verge of divorce with a daughter in rebellion because of her fear that her parents’ relationship may be at an end. Walter Smith is a widowed father of a teenage daughter and a smart young boy. Jennifer Smith (Michelle Horn, Return to the Secret Garden) is also going through a rebellious stage, which is dealt with both firmly and reasonably by her father, who also seems to be involved in more dangerous business than he suggests to his children.

The three hostage takers are better conceived than they first appear. What they do by breaking into the Smith’s mansion is utterly stupid, but the film smartly realizes this and uses the knowledge to force these criminals into a corner where they become cornered beasts lashing out at anything and everything around. The leader is Dennis (Jonathan Tucker, Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who finds himself being pulled between his own partners: his brother Kevin (Marshall Allman, Little Black Book), and the real threat of the trio, the deeply disturbed Mars (Ben Foster, The Punisher). Mars provides the film with a true visible threat as a counterpoint to the story’s unseen and unknown kidnappers of the Talley family. The depth of his psychopathic mind brings an edginess to the action that is unexpected.

But the film really belongs to Willis, who takes his performance, as people are finally beginning to realize, to emotional levels of which only Willis is capable. Willis takes a relaxed approach to his hostage negotiator in the film’s tragic opening sequence that informs the burden of guilt on his shoulders throughout the rest of his story. It is easy to believe Willis as a man who wants nothing to do with that type of high pressure responsibility again and when he initially passes the buck to the county sheriff’s office early on in the story the audience breathes a sigh of relief along with Willis’s character even though you know he will have to be pulled back into the game somehow.

Director Florent Emilio Siri’s only other American directing credits are for a couple of video games in the Splinter Cell covert-ops series and he certainly has a grasp on depicting organized military tactical action, as the police and SWAT units here look as if they are declaring all out war on this mansion with little regard taken for the actual victims of the crimes. Credit is due for the director’s willingness to put so much weight on the psychological end of both Willis’s police chief and Foster’s psychopath, but as the film climaxes the action and psychological drama begin to clash, with Siri depending far too much on the emotional impact of slow motion and close-ups of these two characters in their emotional strain. There comes a point where all this slow motion photography becomes almost silly and a distraction from both the action and emotions involved.

Siri does show some potential to become an effective action director but needs to learn to balance the video game pyrotechnics with the emotional content of the characters. He has some good ideas on both fronts, but in the end lets the melodrama get away from the film. I liked the complications of the plot which left me guessing at times, and on at least one occasion took me a minute to realize what had happened; but everything was built up to such a degree at the end I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at all the catharsis.

Note: Hostage sports one of the most unique looking opening title sequences I’ve seen in film recently, which certainly owes much to Siri’s video gaming background. Unfortunately, it seems more suited to comic book action, a la Sin City or Daredevil, than it does with this more reality based, emotionally charged material.

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