In “Hostage”, Bruce Willis plays former LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, who moved to a small town in Ventura County after his decisions in a hostage crisis one year before failed to save lives. Talley is forced back to duties he thought were behind him when his estranged wife and daughter are taken hostage by hooded criminals who badly want a specific DVD which is in the hands of accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak). Complicating matters, to say the very least, is that Smith, his teenage daughter and young son have themselves been taken hostage by three young men who at first were there only to steal a car.

Inside the Smith house, holding Jennifer and young Tommy captive, are Dennis (Jonathan Tucker), his younger brother Kevin (Marshall Allman) and Mars (Ben Foster). They’re like a three-headed monster with each head pulling in different directions. Dennis, the one who talks on the phone with Talley, thinks he’s in charge. He veers toward having a conscience, but his self-preservation instinct (and the huge sum of money he finds in the house) makes him react in hostile ways. Kevin is basically a decent guy who fell in with the wrong crowd: he realizes the horror of what they’re doing and wants it to end before it gets any worse. There’s a crucial moment where what Kevin does (or rather doesn’t do) tells us a lot about his character. But the true leader and combustible element is Mars, a sadistic sociopath who makes things go from worse to very ugly when he shoots and kills a cop who showed up to check if everything was all right following a silent alarm triggered by Tommy (Jimmy Bennett).

Smith’s residence is outfitted with surveillance cameras and an extensive network of secret passageways, and the latter are eventually the setting for an escape attempt that rivals the intensity of the best horror films. It is just one example of director Florent Siri’s ability to maintain and elevate the nervous mood that invaded the film as soon as the initial hostage crisis in L.A. started getting out of Talley’s control.

“Hostage” is an adaptation of the eponymous Robert Crais novel, where it’s clearly established who the criminals threatening Talley’s family are and what is at stake for them. Screenwriter Doug Richardson definitely made some changes here and there, but the psychology and behaviour patterns of the characters are essentially respected.

The opening credits sequence is pretty nifty and the photography of Giovanni Coltallecci is superb, with some intense close-ups and artful use of darkness and shadows. Siri’s dynamic direction benefits from a classic performance by Willis that brings to mind some of his more layered roles like “The Sixth Sense” and a personal favorite of mine, “Unbreakable”. Willis, playing a man with a lot on his conscience, projects a believable mix of vulnerability and resolve. The way he lowers his voice, for example during his exchanges with the gutsy Tommy, or the way he pauses when dealing with other police forces or an ambulance technician, successfully convey the nerve-testing circumstances his character is in. Also of note is the chilling performance of Foster, who takes a meaty role and makes a memorable psycho out of it. As far as hostage movies go, I’d still recommend the gripping “The Negotiator”, but “Hostage” is a stylish and very well done entry into the genre.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay