It’s been easy to become numbed to the experience of an action movie in the last few years. Besides the Bruckheimer oeuvre setting the standard ever lower, action flicks have come to rely wholly on big bucks, bigger explosions, and even bigger personalities to carry hackneyed, paper-thin stories from one ka-boom to the next. The outcomes might be sensory treats, but seldom are they very good.
Once in a while, however, directors can throw in an unusual kink to spice up the lackadaisical formula. Many of these directors are Europeans, who bring a distinctive visual style to the stories. Jan de Bont had moderate success with Speed, and French director Luc Besson has been fruitfully melding the American action film with European flair for years. Most of the films in this vein have accomplished the combination by slowing down the action where appropriate and bolstering the story with meaningful emotion. Hostage, directed by fellow Frenchman Floren Siri, is an attempt to replicate that combination.
Bruce Willis, one of the kings of stentorian action extravaganzas, has already scored an impressive jaunt with Besson’s The Fifth Element, so the chances seemed pretty good that Hostage would be an interesting project. Willis plays Jeff Talley, an LAPD negotiator who, after failing to thwart a traumatic shooting, retires to a simpler life as sheriff of a small town. Talley appears to find some success in getting on with his life until one day three young hooligans—requisite mean-guy (Jonathan Tucker), requisite hesitant (Marshall Allman), and requisite psychopath (Ben Foster)—run afoul of a rich guy (Kevin Pollack) and his children. The goons bust into rich guy’s mansion intent on stealing his car, but, naturally, things go seriously awry and everyone becomes trapped inside the highly-secure household surrounded by the coppers.
Things get even muddier when it turns out rich guy is an accountant who cooks books for the mob—or something—and his employers, a group so shadowy and malevolent that their purpose or motive is never explained, want information inside the house. In order to ensure that they get it, Talley’s family is taken hostage and he’s forced to somehow obtain the info while trying to save the children held hostage in the house and avoid outside interference. The core of the movie is Talley’s attempt to wrangle with these opposing forces.
This complicated plot lends some needed intelligence to Hostage, which functions more as a dark thriller than an outright action film. American audiences will immediately notice something off about the style. The extremely close-cropped shots, frenetic zoom-ins, and somewhat hokey dialogue are all textbook indications of late 70s French and Italian action films. It often seems as if the European visual tricks and heavy mood are competing with the American need for wham-bam action. It should’ve ended up as a better combination, but occasionally the two opposing ideals are at odds with each other.
One of the main problems plaguing the film is that the lulls attempting to inject weighty meaning into the events slow down the pace far too much for an action-thriller. The somber, menacing tone is great for making the audience squirm with anxiety, but it would have better served with sharper editing. The intensity of the characters, particularly the three high-strung hoodlums, also comes across forced, given that the story doesn’t effectively dip beyond the surface to make us understand why they would attempt to make the jump to deadly serious criminals. In this way, the exposition is too restrained for its own good.
The style does produce some inventively malicious villains, however. Ben Foster may be unbelievable as a steady-going psychopath, but he proves himself plenty scary. The unknown, faceless evildoers who will stop at nothing to obtain their quarry also provide some truly sinister moments. U.S. audiences will also note that the violence, while never gratuitous, is surprisingly gruesome.
Overall, Hostage doesn’t quite pull off a masterful blend of American might with Old World pizzazz, but it is a refreshing twist on a bland formula.
Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.
Hostage / Phillip Stephens
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()