If you're looking for an escapist shoot-'em-up action adventure, and figure a Bruce Willis flick is a reliable option, think twice. Hostage certainly delivers violence and heroics, but not in a way everyone will enjoy. Children and dogs die brutally, and the villains are so thoroughly hateful that even the staunchest liberal will be rooting for them to be tortured before they're killed. Yet the movie doesn't offer that kind of visceral satisfaction -- at least one major villain never even reveals his face. No, this is a movie that, even after stacking the deck to force its hero to resort to extreme violence, wants you to feel guilty about rooting for that violence, and realize that it taints everyone involved. Think Sam Peckinpah or old-school Walter Hill (not necessarily in terms of style, but certainly in substance).
Hostage is harrowing and brutal, and, as a result, extremely tense. The English-language debut of French director Florent Emilio Siri (2002's The Nest), it plays like the next step in the Clint Eastwoodization of Bruce Willis from action icon to flawed, aging hero with regrets. Willis' Jeff Talley is far from the best at what he does; as a Los Angeles hostage negotiator sporting bad Kris Kristofferson hair, he screws up big-time early on, and after washing his hands of L.A. (literally, in Siri's most obvious visual metaphor), winds up in Ventura County, bald and clean-shaven, where his wife and daughter hate him for their boring life. The fact that it's a direct result of there being blood on his hands seems to engender no familial sympathy whatsoever.
The small town of Bristo Camino is extremely low on crime, but, as fate would have it, one of the most evil juvenile delinquents in the world lives in the area. He's a twitching goth psycho in black named Mars (Ben Foster), who once shot a man to watch him die. Mars is friends with Dennis (Jonathan Tucker), an insecure asshole with a gun, and Dennis' brother Kevin (Marshall Allman), whose main function is to scream at his buddies that they've gone too far this time. When a rich teenage girl (Michelle Horn) rejects Dennis' crude come-ons at a takeout restaurant, Dennis makes the command decision to follow her car home and steal it.
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Home turns out to be one of those ultra-high-tech homes that only exists in the hands of the super-rich, or in movies like Panic Room (it even has a "panic room" of its own). This is because Dad (Kevin Pollak) does very shady deals for very wealthy and shady characters. So when Dennis' home invasion goes wrong, not only is it bad news for their hostages, but it's bad for everyone else, too -- some powerful, ruthless people are really pissed that a stupid burglary attempt is screwing up their big deal. Their solution? Take Talley's family hostage and force him to go into the house and get the goods, damn the potential consequences to the hostages, who also include a young boy (Jimmy Bennett).
To break it down: You've got two groups of bad guys (powerful faceless mob types and juvenile-delinquent jackasses with guns), one morally ambiguous hostage (Pollak), and a negotiator primarily concerned with his own family (Willis). You know it'll have to end badly for someone. Hostage, it turns out, works out pretty well, unless you were expecting a feel-good actioner. Director Siri does have an annoying tendency to fade to white for no useful reason, and the house seems to have an astonishing amount of crawlspace, but these flaws can be overlooked. The movie's best scenes nicely turn the tables on our hero, a negotiator used to playing on the emotions of panicked criminals, who himself becomes frantic and is now being emotionally manipulated by the bad guys.
What can't be overlooked is the extent to which Hostage is piggybacking on the hype for that other, better-known upcoming Miramax release with Bruce Willis in it: Sin City. It's one thing to attach a Sin City trailer. It's quite another to utterly rip off the style for the opening credits, which utilize a computer-generated, black-and-white L.A. cityscape under a blood-red sky. A look at the poster for Hostage also reveals a black-and-white Willis standing in bright streaks of rain; well, there's no rain whatsoever in Hostage, but there certainly is -- and in bright streaks, no less -- coming down on a black-and-white Mickey Rourke in the trailer for Sin City. Hey, both movies may appeal to the same audience, but such cribbing does no justice to the film at hand, which should rise or fall on its own copious merits.