on March 11, 2005 by Mark Keizer
Hostage negotiating seems like a mighty interesting job, but it's one that filmmakers can never get right. Like 1998's "The Negotiator," the Bruce Willis vehicle "Hostage" starts nicely, only to shed IQ points at alarming speed. Eventually we realize that as far as Hollywood is concerned, hostage negotiator is just a fancy term for macho-super-cop.

In what can only be another nail in the coffin of civilization, "Hostage" was helmed by a video game director. Granted, some video games are visually gorgeous with beautiful cinematic touches. And director Florent Emilio Siri, responsible for the "Splinter Cell" series, is smart enough to base his film on the Robert Crais novel, which, from a character and storytelling standpoint, has already done the heavy lifting. But it hardly matters. Alarmingly, the opening credits of "Hostage" even look like a cop-thriller video game, a CGI tour through deep-shadowed alleyways and rooftops. But regardless of who's at the wheel, the world just doesn't need a suburban riff on the "Die Hard" series, and Siri's visual fireworks make the film less interesting, not more.

Getting things off to a snappy start, we meet LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Tally (Willis) on the job, trying to reason with a deranged man holed up in a house and threatening to kill the two people inside. When Tally waits too long to take out the perp, the two hostages are shot dead. Guilt-ridden, he leaves the force and becomes chief of police at a small, latte-and-SUV Ventura County suburb. The town's richest resident is undoubtedly Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak), an accountant who lives with his two children in a veritable fortress on a hill.

When a trio of young punks (led by Ben Foster) driving a stolen pick-up truck spot Walter's Escalade, they follow him home, knock him unconscious, tie up his children and take over the house. But what these kids don't know is that Smith is an accountant with very dangerous employers in desperate need of an information-packed DVD inside the now-barricaded mansion. So these mystery villains make Tally an offer he can't refuse: find the DVD, or they'll kill his wife and daughter (the latter played by Willis progeny Rumer). So, Tally must not only save the family held hostage in the mansion, but save his own family by finding the all-important DVD (important because it contains a pirated copy of the new Bruce Willis thriller "Hostage").

Setting up a scenario where everyone is, either literally or figuratively, held hostage is good. Squandering that scenario is not good. As is the case with most hostage-taking sagas, negotiations break down, leading to the type of slam-bang action scenes that the filmmakers mistakenly assume we're waiting for. Eventually, the whole thing just goes silly, with one of the hostage-takers walking in slow motion down a flaming hallway with Molotov cocktails in each hand. At one point, Tally even gets shot in the stomach, which has absolutely no effect on him, except as some sort of nod to the improbable idea that he could survive the entire ordeal unscathed.

The three hostage-takers don't seem all that smart, so it's more out of plot necessity that they get as far as they do. The same goes for Smith's humongous mansion. The house, which includes a silent alarm and security cameras, can be locked down like a fortress at the touch of a button. That a trio of drop-outs could climb over one gate and get inside the garage takes the film into the realm of science-fiction.

As he proved in the enjoyable "Die Hard" series, Willis can play macho, with enough humanism to believably weep upon being reunited with his family. But obviously, he's done this kind of thing before, and unless "Hostage" is going to really push the envelope, his presence, although welcome, is more than the movie deserves.Willis has an admirable track record when it comes to taking chances on little-known directors. But with "Pulp Fiction" and "The Sixth Sense," he was working with unique material, so it's hard to figure what attracted him to Doug Richardson's script.

Thesping on the villain side is bad news. Ben Foster ("Six Feet Under") shoots for badass but comes off as ridiculous, with his greasy hair, leather jacket and psychotic drags on his cigarette. Jonathan Tucker does better as the kid trying very hard to prove he's good enough to be taken seriously as a criminal, even if the task ultimately proves too much. Nine-year-old Jimmy Bennett is terrific as the younger Smith, able to convey panic without false child actor notes. The behind-the-scenes credits are all fine, except Alexandre Desplat's score, which hits the obvious cues in obvious fashion. Starring Bruce Willis and Kevin Pollak. Directed by Florent Emilio Siri. Written by Doug Richardson. Produced by Bob Yari, Mark Gordon and Arnold Rifkin. A Miramax release. Crime thriller. Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use. Running time: 104 min

Tags: Starring Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollak, Directed by Florent Emilio Siri. Written by Doug Richardson, Produced by Bob Yari, Mark Gordon, Arnold Rifkin, Miramax, Crime thriller

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