It’s difficult to make talking on the phone – negotiating – seem like a dramatic act, but we live in an odd age where bad accounting practices bring down industrial giants and loose lips sink Martha Stewart. 
The newest Bruce Willis’ vehicle, Hostage, is paradoxically most interesting when old baldy is out of the picture. Willis plays Jeff Talley, a former LAPD negotiator who has turned his back on big-time crime to pursue a peaceful job in Ventura County among yuppies and hicks after a botched negotiation.
Three teenagers break into a mansion in Talley’s town, intent on stealing a high-priced SUV. Unfortunately for them, the mansion’s owner is a crooked accountant working for the mob and as they’re caught in a string of escalating violence, Talley’s own family is taken hostage to ensure his cooperation. 
Hostage’s visual cues are hard to miss, but it’s not always clear what they mean. After a botched negotiation Talley brings his bloodied hands up to his face and weeps to show that he’s responsible. It’s a heavy-handed but mostly innocuous scene, the cinematic equivalent to a sunset appearing in a sophomore love poem. But other cues – like the tortured death of a young Goth – defy explanation.
A sordid love affair between one of the young criminals and his female hostage is inscrutable. I wasn’t sure a scene in which bondage gear makes an appearance would end in a kiss or bloodshed. This violently romantic infatuation seems out of place in a film so over-invested in familial relationships. And yet this weird teenaged sadomasochistic fling seems almost refreshing against the backdrop of failed marriages – Talley and his wife have a weekend marriage and the Smith family is dismantled – and corporate intrigue. 
Here’s how their relationship works: Mars (Ben Foster), who looks like a bad reinterpretation / misunderstanding of Brandon Lee’s Crow, ties up Jennifer Smith (Michelle Horn) and begins talking sweetly about how he was abused as a child. There’s something in his discourse on pain that seems vaguely thrilling and nocturnal, and Jennifer breaths hard despite herself, nearly splitting her tight, slutty t-shirt.
Several close-ups reveal Jennifer’s sexual interest in her kidnapper: Her lips part sensually as he paces the room smoking dope and her chest heaves at his approach. While the two other youthful criminals are busy debating the moral ambiguity of their situation and exploring their own relationship (they’re brothers), Mars and Jennifer share marijuana in mouth-to-mouth kisses. As Talley tries to scheme a way into the house to save his own mostly-absent family from being killed, Mars and Jennifer retire to her room for more exotic bondage-discipline using a knife as a prop.
The film relishes the opportunity to show women geared up in the latest fetishwear. Pictures of Talley’s bound wife and daughter are passed around like porn and the film lingers over Horn’s body like a blind hand over Braille. Although Jennifer’s kid brother Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) is originally bound up, no one seems to miss the little scamp when he’s gotten loose, and their dad is promptly knocked out to make sure he doesn’t obscure our view of his daughter squirming in ropes of duct tape.
Mars and his cohorts should have kept a closer eye on little Tommy, who scurries through a mouse hole and disappears in the vast labyrinth between the walls of the mansion. Crawling down rope ladders and coming out secret panels, I half expected little Tommy to discover a lost colony of mole people or Willie Wonka’s new Chocolate Factory. 
(It’s hard to feel too bad for the Smiths. What sorts of people invest billions of dollars in surveillance equipment, but don’t notice when their precocious son builds a funhouse between the walls? The answer to this is the same sort of nitwits who invest billions of dollars in surveillance equipment but fail to install sprinklers or a fire alarm. “I’m in my secret place,” Tommy tells Talley on the telephone. I’m sorry folks, but if you can’t keep track of your own kids in your home with the aid of one-way mirrors and a network of closed-circuit television maybe you shouldn’t own them.)
By the time a rival sheriff reads Talley his rights – “Your flagrant disregard for police policy” yada yada yada – the movie has migrated from the region of quiet stupidity to offensively bad. The brutality of the final third of the film almost matches Schwarzeneggar’s last non-Terminator bloodbath and the storyline disintegrates as a key plot device is destroyed. But worse than all of this, the film is utterly humorless, a kind of sadistic machine.
The film takes place in a world of shadow armies, outlaw accountants and bad negotiators but in the end, watching Hostage will make you wish had a ball gag for whoever had the idea of going to see this movie.


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