In the opening scenes of the new Bruce Willis movie, world-weary hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis) lounges on his back beneath a sizzling Los Angeles sun, combing his grizzly beard with one hand while holding a telephone in the other, calmly reasoning with the jealous husband whos holding his unfaithful wife and young son at gunpoint in a house across the street. No one dies today, Talley cautions a rooftop sniper, who announces hes secured a clean shot of the gunman. Of course, as anyone who has ever seen a cop movie already knows, lots of people will end up dying today, and Talley will spend the rest of the movie trying to rinse their blood off his hands. But if Hostage seems another of those good-cop-atoning-for-past-sins morality plays that Hollywood never tires of making, its also leaner, meaner and dirtier than most, making it possible to forget youve seen it all before. At a time when most action pictures borrow their aesthetics from the video-game universe, Hostage plants its roots firmly in an earlier cinematic era. Its influences are the hard-boiled 1950s noirs of Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh and André de Toth, plus the grindhouse thrillers of the 1970s and 80s, which involved a nasty ratcheting-up of those earlier films lurid pleasures. Back then, before home video and cable cannibalized the theatrical market for cheap thrills, it was still possible to slip into one of the sagging movie palaces in Times Square or along Hollywood Boulevard and be treated (if thats the right word) to the likes of Meir Zarchis I Spit on Your Grave, Wes Cravens Last House on the Left and William Lustigs extraordinary Vigilante, movies in which collective paranoia about invasion and violation were transformed into gut-wrenching popular spectacles. And whether or not you sauntered back into the daylight thinking those films had had anything meaningful to say about the human capacity for violence, you had to admit it was hard to shake their crude, violent images out of your head. Hostage, which marks the English-language filmmaking debut of French director Florent Siri, does more or less the same thing, and does it with breathtaking efficiency. The movie isnt particularly tasteful or finely crafted it frequently resorts to images of children and/or animals in peril and has at least two lugubrious subplots too many but it grabs you by the jugular, and only during an overcooked climax does it finally relax its grip. Picking up the action one year after its brutal opening sequence, Hostage finds Talley ensconced in a new job as police chief in a sleepy Ventura County hamlet, the sort of place where the peace does a reliably good job of keeping itself. Until, that is, a botched car theft turns into a home invasion, with a trio of local miscreants (Jonathan Tucker, Marshall Allman and Six Feet Unders Ben Foster) holding a shady millionaire (Kevin Pollack) and his two kids captive inside a near-impregnable hilltop fortress. By the time his own family gets sucked into the action, Talleys past has come back to haunt him in a major way. Hostage may be an unapologetic formula picture that borrows copiously (right down to its opening titles) from David Finchers Panic Room, but the movie possesses a grittiness and lack of pretension that can hardly be overvalued in the wake of smug, bloated entertainments like Be Cool, Oceans Twelve and just about every movie Willis has made in the past decade. It feels like the pushing of a much-needed reset button. The movies villains arent nefarious masterminds or hardened thugs, but scared, emotionally damaged teenagers, while Talley himself is less unbreakable superhero than the kind of vulnerable everyman Willis (who also produced the film) played to such good effect in the original Die Hard. And when Siri shares in Finchers delight at carefully mapping out his films interior spaces, he accomplishes this not with elaborate, CG-enhanced dolly shots, but with the same crisp, angular, deep-space compositions he employs throughout the rest of the film. All of which results in that rare thing at todays multiplex a visceral, sleazily self-assured B movie. HOSTAGE | Directed by FLORENT SIRI | Written by DOUG RICHARDSON, based on the novel by Robert Crais | Produced by BRUCE WILLIS, ARNOLD RIFKIN, MARK GORDON and BOB YARI | Released by Miramax | Citywide
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