‘Hostage’ has a great first half, but fumbles to the finish

Bruce Willis fights to save his family in 'Hostage'
Bruce Willis fights to save his family in ‘Hostage’

This movie was always kind of mixed up in my head. Every time I saw the title, Hostage, I kept thinking of this book I read a while back that said on the cover it was going to be made into a film. But I checked it, and it’s actually called, Standoff. The two are similar in that they are both about burned-out hostage negotiators, but where Standoff was a straight thriller about a Ruby Ridge-like incident, Hostage is far more elaborate and Hollywood.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but I guess in my own head I was expecting something more cerebral. Perhaps it was because I kept thinking of the book and that had me in a different frame of mind. Hostage turned out to be pretty good, but it’s rather over the top, with characters that slowly become comically extreme.

As Hostage begins, Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis), negotiator for the LAPD, is slowly unraveling as he struggles to convince a deranged man to release his girlfriend and her son. The man gets agitated, and while Talley is desperate to save him, he fails and the man kills himself… along with the woman and child.

Mentally and emotionally broken, Talley leaves the LAPD to become a chief of police for a small California town. But his quiet exile gets interrupted when three teens attempt to steal a car, but end up taking a man and his two children hostage in their elaborate home. Things get even more complicated, as the man turns out to be connected to dangerous men who need something in his house. They take Talley’s wife and child hostage in exchange for the item in the house.

Talley must defuse a deadly situation with the teens, while at the same time hold back the police force and work with the kidnappers to save his family.

Hostage is really elaborate, probably the most layered hostage story I’ve ever seen. For the most part, it handles the stories well, but about half way through the characters begin to devolve. The teens sink into over-the-top clichés. At first there’s a hint that perhaps what we’re seeing is a Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino/Cazale-type relationship between the two main teens, but this fizzles away. And the reversal of the plot, where Talley’s wife and daughter are kidnapped, is just a little too Hollywood. It’s interesting on a certain level, but the human dynamic of it gets lost in favor of some eye-rolling action sequences.

Hostage could have been a character study, similar to what the book Standoff was like. But the gimmicks of the plot override the characters after a time, and all the things that are set up in the first half take over in the second.

The performances are good, for the most part. Willis is an expert at playing the reluctant action hero that he started with Die Hard. His working-class demeanor seems to make him ultimately likable. However, I would have been more impressed had he been clean shaven at the beginning, then sport the full beard and long hair during the rest of the film. I don’t know, just seemed more appropriate that way. But I guess producers don’t like their stars looking all Grizzly Adams.

Ben Foster stands out here as Mars, the psycho teen with a thirst for killing. His performance is powerful, but suffers only because the character is just a little too extreme to be believable. Foster gives it all he’s got, and that’s admirable, so the near silliness of the role isn’t really his fault. That’s just the way it was written.

The DVD, which was released today, features a collection of deleted and extended scenes. Some of them are actually okay, but as usual it’s pretty clear why they were removed from the final cut (and if you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s a director’s commentary to help explain it to you). Hostage director Florent Siri has an audio commentary which is interesting. If you don’t like the movie much, though, his comments seem a little detached as he gushes over the story and actors. There’s also the standard behind the scene featurette.

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