The dynamo from such hard-hitting films as the Die Hard trilogy and Armageddon turns into an emotional wreck in Hostage. The former John McClane is here an ex-negotiator, harrowed by a past tragedy, forced back into the business of life and death when a benign car theft in his sleepy town goes wrong.
With enough sirens, flames, and guns to qualify as a standard Willis film, as well as the requisite heroic ending predictable from the very title sequence, the film should fall easily into a police stakeout genre formula. Yet even on a technical level, the movie is stitched together so weakly that director Florence Siri bungles these standard devices.
The plot proceeds with forced motivation. Disgruntled teens in a dirty pick-up truck follow Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his family home, eyeing the family’s shining Escalade. Their attempt to steal the car from the Smiths’ remote mansion is complicated by the involvement of the two Smith children, Tommy (Jimmy Bennet) and Jennifer (Michelle Horn), as well as their father (Pollak). The delinquent teens ineptly spiral the event into a full-blown hostage situation.
As Jeff Talley (Willis) arrives on the scene, he refuses to reenter the field that made him miserable. He is forced into the task not only because of his undeniable skill at saving the day (even the criminals ask to work with him), but also through an underdeveloped subplot that puts the lives of his wife and daughter at risk.
After he cries about both his past tragedy and this new case that threatens disaster, Willis just barely regains composure long enough to override local authorities and take over command. While Willis has played this caring-but-tough roll before (The Fifth Element), the abrupt transitions between teary scenes and action thrills are unconvincing.
Willis has trapped himself between two career stages, and this film perhaps represents an uncomfortable amalgam of his heavy artillery days and an older and wiser persona. The direction is mostly to blame, and Willis’s years of experience shine through in his ability to feign on-screen chemistry with the rest of the cast.
In the sickeningly simplistic morality structure of the film, the two rich children serve as wholesome victims, while the three rough and bitter kids from the bad part of town are posed as the inevitably doomed youth that life forgot. When one of the hooligans, Mars (Ben Foster), begins to threaten Jennifer, we are informed that this “goth” character’s father’s abusive behavior left him an orphan, resulting in his disregard for human life.
This moment represents a grim view of the tendency of neglected kids to imitate their families’ destructive behaviors. The film’s suggestion leaves no room for character development and limits the three teens to simple emulation.
The film cliché technical effects are just as heavy-handed as the plot. In the climactic final carnage, flames billow around the stars in the high class mansion. Suddenly, the film is in slow motion. The camera dwells excessively on Mars’ deranged face and on Jennifer’s expression as they lock eyes, against a background of fire and a blatantly angelic soundtrack, making the whole scene slightly twisted, a bit scary, and very, very laughable.
The simple characters and exaggerated effects can’t quite fall into place, which makes this latest career move for Willis tearfully regretful.