"Willis's best since Die Hard" screamed the headlines on the trailer for Hostage. That made me optimistic as I made my way to see the film Sunday night. Knowing that most Willis action movies outside of the Die Hard universe tend to be rather generic with a few exceptions (the underrated Last Boy Scout), I found myself thinking "do we really need another Tears of the Sun?"
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So is Hostage Willis's best since the original Die Hard? No. That honor of course goes to Pulp Fiction. Hostage is also not as good as the aforementioned Last Boy Scout or the Sixth Sense. Essentially it falls in the middle on the scale of Bruce Willis movies. Which means that it isn't as good as the ones I already named (as well as Die Hard 2 and 12 Monkeys). But it is better than Armageddon, Mercury Rising, the aforementioned Tears of the Sun, Striking Distance and The Jackal.
In essence, the main similarity between Hostage and the original Die Hard is in the plot and lead characters. Both movies feature hostage situations. That much should be obvious from the title of the new film alone. What's not as obvious is that Willis's world weary police chief Jeff Talley is like John McClane in the most important regard: he's not bulletproof. That adds a certain level of humanity to the story and keeps it from turning into what would otherwise be a run of the mill thriller.
Hostage begins with a bearded Talley serving as a hostage negotiator for the LAPD. He tries to save the life of a young man taken hostage by his psychotic father. However he fails and junior dies. This causes him to go into a deep depression and take the less stressful job of police chief in a nearby small town. Of course, his deep depression leads to him being estranged from his wife and daughter.
The new town he goes to live in is relatively crime free aside from some teen punks out to terrorize people for fun. Three of these members of the trenchcoat mafia decide to invade the house of local rich man Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak, looking uncannily like Kevin Spacey) and make off with a sizeable amount of his sizeable dough. Of course, Mr. Smith has a typical teenage daughter and a younger son who just happen to be there when the three punks show up. So of course, all three becomes hostages for the brutish teens. This brings in the local police headed by chief Talley.
The three kidnappers fall into the typical archetypes of young adult movie villains. You have the ringleader (Jonathan Tucker) who's one of those teens those who aren't jocks desperately try to avoid in high school. You have the ringleader's younger brother (Marshall Allman) who cannot stand up to him, yet does not approve of what they are doing. Lastly there is the truly psychotic Mars (Ben Foster). Mars looks something like Trent Reznor and it is especially appropriate when certain parts of the movie look like a Nine Inch Nails video (a tense scene during the ultra-violent climax most notably as well as a bit involving Smith's teenage daughter).
So the teen kidnappers and their hostages are set up for the big showdown that will doubtlessly come at the end of the movie. However, there's a major twist inserted not long after Willis comes along, tries to resolve the situation peacefully and then hands it over to the state police. Various members of some organized crime syndicate show up, and kidnap Willis's wife and daughter. It seems that good old Mr. Smith was involved in some criminal business and they want access to it. Specifically to a DVD inside Mr. Smith's house. A DVD containing info about various money related schemes. Columbine meet Enron.
Some critics have made a big deal of the high level of violence in the film (Phoebe Flowers of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel most notably). The film is quite violent and there are times where it comes close to nihilistic. This is especially true in the case of the violence perpetrated by Mars.
In actuality the violence is less nihilistic than not leavened by humor the way it is in the Die Hard movies. Willis doesn't toss off snarky lines like "yipeekaiyay motherfucker" at the villains. In essence, Jeff Talley is like McClane without the sense of humor. This can be a double edged sword. On one hand, there are moments that are meant to be serious and the insertion of a cheap wisecrack would have greatly lessened them. However, the movie also reaches moments where it cries out for the injection of some comic relief.
What's also somewhat surprising about the movie is the way it subverts certain cliches. For instance, our first view of the Smith house shows it as a tall mansion on top of a high hill. We thus expect to see the climbing villain and the falling villain cliche utilized at some point. Not here.
I can't really find any major fault with Hostage overall. The acting is good all around, there's plenty of suspense and the plot itself keeps us involved all the way until the very end. I think the movie's main flaw is that it tries to cram TOO MUCH in for its own good. The central plot of the film, with the teen thugs holding the innocent people hostage is good. The organized crime involvement is good to a point, although it starts to reach the level of unwieldy. That's what can happen when you try to cram too much in.
Thinking about it now, I also realize that Willis's family is only shown briefly before the carnage begins. Thus we don't really get enough time to get to know them. We care about them just because they are Willis's family. That's it. In Die Hard, McClane's wife and children were seen only shortly before the action began. But enough was shown to make us care about them.
So when one puts the whole thing in perspective, one finds that Hostage is a good not great thriller. It's not up there with recent great thrillers like Man on Fire. But it's an entertaining two hours and that makes it worth one's time to head for the theater rather than like a hole, black as your soul.