Movie review: 'Hostage'

2½ stars (out of 4)

Good action movies live on style and excitement. But they also need credibility, and in "Hostage," almost a good genre piece, plausibility keeps getting slaughtered.

This snazzy, full-throttle cop thriller, made with lots of energy but less sense, stars Bruce Willis as an ex-hostage negotiator trying to flee the dangers of big-city crime, who is instead pulled into a perilous standoff.

French director Florent Siri brings much atmospheric grit, gloss, suspense and sheer razzle-dazzle American-style action movie technique to this effort. His opening hostage scene and the one in which characters in cars criss-cross before the second crisis, are both superb.

But, unlike countryman Jean-Francois Richet in the recent remake of John Carpenter's "Assault on Precinct 13," Siri doesn't have an effective-enough script. Audiences could accept the weird premise and stylized semi-absurdities of Richet's "Assault" because it was fun to watch—and it set those parameters from the start. "Hostage," however, begins with a well-staged, realistic siege scene that leads you to expect a more plausible cop movie. And, after that credible start, Siri and the writers throw logic to the winds.

Willis, with his trademark smirk, plays gifted-but-burned-out Los Angeles cop Jeff Talley, an ace hostage negotiator who flees the pressures of his L.A. job for a routine gig as police chief of small-town Bristo Camino. He shaves his head and simplifies his life, only to become embroiled in another hostage crisis when a local accountant, affable Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak), is taken prisoner with his children in his fortress-style hillside home.

The perpetrators are brothers Dennis and Kevin Kelly (Jonathan Tucker and Marshall Allman) and their psycho sidekick Mars Krupcheck (Ben Foster), three young stickup artists who start on a mean lark by trailing Walter's punk-rebel teen daughter Jennifer (Michelle Horn) after she flips them the finger. But it escalates into a full-scale standoff when a cop is killed and Talley arrives.

Inside, the brothers bicker and Mars comes on hot and heavy to Jennifer, whose little brother Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) contacts the cops by cellphone while using crawlspaces to sneak through the house.

But Smith turns out to be an accountant for a criminal group that is desperate to prevent a DVD containing incriminating information from falling into police hands. To ensure Talley's cooperation, that gang kidnaps Talley's wife and daughter (Serena Scott Thomas and real-life progeny Rumer Willis), threatening to kill them if the chief doesn't get them the DVD, secreted in Smith's house in the box for Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait."

Based on a more believable novel by Robert Crais, this movie actually has a good idea for a high-octane cop thriller, but the payoff collapses. And, if anything betrays the foreign cineaste origins of the director (beyond the movie's preference for Lubitsch's great 1943 romantic comedy, beloved by France's auteurists), it's the way the gang members holding Talley's family become symbolic figures of ambivalent movie evil. It's a change from Crais' book, in which they're clearly the Mafia.

Here, they're a nameless, faceless, well-spoken masked group who look like a high-tech Ku Klux Klan. They might be almost anything though: the Cosa Nostra gone wacky, the CIA gone amok, or a multi-national corporation with a particularly unscrupulous acquisitions policy. But they're totally unbelievable, and so is their cockamamie kidnap plot. Why not just put a marksman on Talley and tell him there's a killer in his midst, or hire some crooked cop to get "Heaven Can Wait?" For that matter, why are the trio in the house so oblivious to Tommy's crawlspace adventures?

Despite all this, Talley is the kind of tight-lipped role right up co-producer Willis' alley, and he plays it with his usual panache. Willis' trump card has always been his ability to humanize characters such as Talley, to make their anguish real. This time though, he gets more hassles from Doug Richardson's script than the hostage crisis.

Perhaps because of their half-worshipful stance toward American noir and thrillers, especially Alfred Hitchcock, some younger French moviemakers like Richet, Siri or Alexandre Aja ("High Tension") have recently mastered the mechanics of American movie suspense better than most young Americans. But though Siri started as a personal student of the great Eric Rohmer ("Claire's Knee"), another Hitchcock fan, his movie could use more of Rohmer's patience and jewel-like logic. Because what Siri most needs is a good script to harness his dazzling technique. Explosions, gunfights and suspense may keep you awake for a while, but not if the movie assaults logic and holds common sense hostage.

mwilmington@tribune.com

"Hostage"

Directed by Florent Siri; written by Doug Richardson, based on the book by Robert Crais; photographed by Giovanni Fiore Coltelacci; edited by Olivier Gajan, Richard J. P. Byard; production designed by Larry Fulton; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Bruce Willis, Arnold Rifkin, Mark Gordon, Bob Yari. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:53. MPAA rating: R (For strong, brutal violence, language and some drug use).

Jeff Talley - Bruce Willis
Walter Smith - Kevin Pollak
Tommy Smith - Jimmy Bennett
Jennifer Smith - Michelle Horn
Mars Krupcheck - Ben Foster
Dennis Kelly - Jonathan Tucker
Kevin Kelly - Marshall Allman

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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