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The Negotiator

 

Hostage

Florent Siri, USA, 2005

Rating: 2.3

 

Posted: March 11, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Fans of crime writer Robert Crais know that Hostage is by far the most formulaic of his books. Lacking either a relatable protagonist like the wisecracking private detective Elvis Cole (the star of most of his novels) or an inventive, well-researched milieu like the bomb-squad/serial killer tale Demolition Angel, it churns along at a decent page-turning clip and keeps the tension ratcheted up, but is nonetheless a bit of a slog -- it's a boilerplate thriller from beginning to end, and feels like nothing so much as an obvious blueprint for a B-movie.

Which, unsurprisingly, is exactly what it has now become. Hostage is a by-the-book crime thriller whose hook is that it contains not one but two hostage situations for its protagonist, former hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, to deal with. When a trio of teenagers breaks into the unsightly compound of accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak), they inadvertently make some faceless mob types unhappy -- Smith is the guy cooking their books, and he's got a DVD full of important data that they need in a hurry. Too bad the surly teens have created a full-scale media event outside his house.

Talley -- played by Bruce Willis, with all of the solemn gravity he brought to The Sixth Sense and none of the smirking bravado he brings to his best action films (a younger Willis would make an intriguing screen version of Elvis Cole) -- has given up the negotiating game after his last job went south, and is now the police chief of the small California town in which this new hostage situation takes place. Talley doesn't really want to deal with this kind of thing, but he doesn't have much choice when the bad guys reveal that they've kidnapped his estranged wife and daughter. Unless he inserts himself into the situation and finds that crucial DVD, his own family is history.

That's a fairly decent high-concept hook, and it's the only thing about the workmanlike plot that doesn't feel naggingly familiar. But director Florent Siri and screenwriter Doug Richardson do nothing with it but the obvious, which is to occasionally show Talley's face crinkled in overwrought agony as he bears up under the mounting pressure to save his family. It's fun at first watching Talley play both sides against the middle -- attempting to con one of the teens, or exploiting Smith's pre-teen son (via cell phone) by asking him to put himself in harm's way. But soon enough, when he's not grimacing under all the emotional strain, the whole family-in-peril angle becomes little more than an afterthought.

As a fan of both Crais and Willis (especially in his action-hero mode, even if he's getting a little long in the tooth for it), this writer desperately wanted to like Hostage more than he did. But the nonstop by-the-numbers moments make it difficult. Everything is painted in the broadest possible strokes. We know Talley is a changed man after the failed hostage situation that opens the movie, for instance, because a) he's cut his salt-and-pepper long hair and beard for the more traditional bald Willis look and b) we actually see his hands caked with the blood of the life he couldn't save.

Likewise, the three teenagers are evenly split between the impulsive leader (Jonathan Tucker, a long way from the goofy lightweight fare of 100 Girls or the weightier matter of The Deep End or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who just wanted to carjack Smith's SUV; his younger brother, who wants no part of what's unfolding; and the brooding, silent bad seed who sets things off when he shoots one of Talley's cops. (This young tough is played by moon-eyed Ben Foster, who does his best to look menacing even though he's, you know, Ben Foster.) For reasons that defy all logic, Siri opts to slather Foster's big moment in Christ-martyr symbolism, which provoked a number of giggles at the screening I attended.

Mention must also be made of Smith's kids: Jennifer, a pouty, pulchritudinous teen girl capably played by Michelle Horn (a bit too young, as Pollak points out, to be as tarted up as she is; her appearance throughout the film feels unsettlingly targeted to dirty old men), and Tommy (Jimmy Bennett), your garden-variety resourceful 10-year-old in the Home Alone mold.

Hostage makes the unfortunate choice of taking itself far too seriously. It's as if it never occurred to Siri that the story unfolds along well-worn lines that anyone who's ever seen a crime thriller will see coming a mile away; the film's stark, grim tone does nothing to offset the numbing feel of the familiar that permeates almost every frame. The result isn't a terrible movie, but neither is it one you'll remember five minutes after you leave the theater.

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