March, 2005, Thriller

I love murder mysteries, (especially hard-boiled ones by old pros like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) which employ the crime novel as a vehicle for raising moral issues in these increasingly ambiguous post-modern times. Among the contemporary authors who continue in that tradition are Walter Mosley and Robert Crais, the latter a prolific writer of crime scripts for television series, (Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice etc.). Crais has also enjoyed considerable success as an author of crime fiction, having produced almost a dozen books in the last 15 years. Most of these feature an L.A.-based detective by the name of Elvis Cole and his stoic partner Joe Pike, but Crais interrupted this series to write “Hostage”, a novel about a home-invasion gone bad and the clumsy attempts of overlapping police jurisdictions to deal with it. It’s far from Crais’ best work, but it certainly deserves better treatment than it received from director Florent Siri and leading man Bruce Willis. Each is responsible for one of the two principal failures in this botched movie. 

Siri, a 40-ish director of two thrillers filmed in Europe but not as yet released here, displays the basic competencies of an action director, but he’s burdened with a penchant for florid overstatement and an annoying tendency to draw out scenes to make his point. His last name may rhyme with subtlety, but that’s as close as he comes to it. Working from Crais’ novel, screenwriter Doug Richardson, (Bad Boys, Die Hard II) retains the book’s basic premise but hopelessly confuses it with elements apparently designed to “open up” the plot to greater opportunities for visualizing its storyline. In Crais’ version, “Hostage” is set in a typical southern California suburb, where nondescript lawns, dense shrubs and shoulder-high walls separating back yards from the interstate create ideal conditions for a low-key but menacing stand-off. Richardson shifts the location to an isolated spot in the California foothills, where an enormous house of intricate design has been built into the side of a mountain by one Walter Smith. Its internal security systems rival those of Jodie Foster’s fortress home in Panic Room and it comes complete with loads of structurally unnecessary duct work which permits Smith’s young son Jimmy to craw throughout the house after supposedly being locked in his room. From the outside, this gargantuan structure can only be penetrated by helicopters and assault troops; Siri supplies both, in quantities not normally found outside military installations. 

The invaders, a trio of disaffected kids, (hardened thugs in the novel) break into Smith’s home to hijack a new car, but do it so ineptly they alert Smith, his two children and the police while still inside the house. Mars Krupcheck, (Ben Foster) the most dangerous of the three, kills the first officer on the scene which brings out Jeff Talley, (Bruce Willis) the local police chief. Talley’s tragic past experience as a hostage negotiator in Los Angles, (seen in a flashback which opens the film) has driven him to seek the presumed peace and quiet of the suburbs. While screaming at Talley to get them a helicopter, the invaders discover two duffel bags of cash which they plan to take along as they make their escape. What they don’t know is that Smith’s an accountant for a crime syndicate; one of his responsibilities is laundering their money. Incredibly, Richardson’s script has Smith’s mob bosses see all this unfolding live on a local television station’s live broadcast, so they decide to kidnap Talley’s wife and daughter in order to force the chief to end the showdown and retrieve the mob’s money along with an incriminating disc with detailed information about the syndicate’s activities. All this gets shoveled at the audience with a thudding sound track and the requisite gore typical of this genre, along with an over-wrought performance by Foster which can only be described as downright embarrassing. 

 As Talley mounts a strategy designed to accomplish his parallel tasks - -ending the home invasion and saving his own family - - Willis and the director make a fatal mistake, sending the movie into such cartoon-ish silliness it collapses of its own pretensions.

Bruce Willis turned 50 earlier this year and thus faces a challenge which ultimately comes to all action stars; age. (Some actors, like Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood, solve this problem by reinventing themselves and going on to roles more suited to their advancing years; Arnold Schwarzenegger did it by dropping out to become governor of California.) Despite appearances in a long string of third-rate action films and at least one absolute clunker, (Hudson Hawk) Willis is not without ability; his performances in films like In Country, Nobody’s Fool and Pulp Fiction demonstrate a much wider range of possibility than is evidenced by his overall choice of roles thus far. Beginning with his portrayal of a tortured psychiatrist in the surprisingly successful “Sixth Sense” a few years back, Willis has anticipated the age problem by expanding his work into roles designed to show a flair for light comedy on the one hand or a deeply vulnerable side to his screen persona on the other. As a consequence, Willis moved to comedies, (Bandits, The Whole Nine Yards) and leading roles that presented a still active but more cerebral, conflicted hero, (Hart’s War) in the manner of Gregory Peck. Unfortunately, the box-office results of these efforts suggest that audiences aren’t buying.

Hostage tries to straddle this career transition by initially utilizing Willis’ new life-sized image, taking the time to show Chief Talley’s distress at the futility of his work as a negotiator, the tensions in his relationship with his wife, and his frustration at communicating so ineffectually with his teenage daughter. This material isn’t award-winning, but at least it does establish a credibly flawed but interesting character.  But the minute the scripts calls for guns to start blazing, Willis shifts back into Die Hard mode, which requires mindless violence, incoherent action and ridiculous plot developments to keep displaying Willis as a suddenly transformed superhero. Didn’t anyone working on this film realize that Talley’s theatrical heroics in the second half of this film are completely out of character with the sensitive cop presented in the opening reel? Long before this one staggers to its asinine and unnecessarily gory bloodbath of a climax, the star has once again let his audience down.

Willis is now working on Die Hard 4, due out next year; is he returning to full-time action superhero status? If so, he risks joining Sylvester Stallone, Steven Segal et al in richly-deserved obscurity.

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