Take That 

Hostage delivers what it promises.

I went straight from watching a tepid A&E Biography on Bruce Willis to the theater to see his latest foray, Hostage.

Less journalistic exposé than video-montage love letter, the Biography episode did manage to interview some Willis collaborators who identified key elements to his sometimes-baffling longevity and success. Unlike Misters Stallone and Schwarzenegger also born of the 1980s action genre Willis actually succeeds at playing the average Joe caught in unaverage circumstances.

Muscular without being grotesque, resourceful without being superhuman, and vengeful without losing his humanity, Willis has been able to age with some grace (he turns 50 this week) and turn in performances that allow him to grow as well as hone his reliable, sellable traits. I've always liked him, and The Sixth Sense affirmed for me his ability to act, while affirming for him, I think, the notion that less can be more. Since then, his heroes have been granted a potential for restraint and calm that previous action-ers have lacked. Hostage definitely benefits from the finishing-school training that Sense afforded him.

Hostage begins with a prologue of sorts. Willis is Jeff Talley, first-rate hostage negotiator, in the middle of a seemingly routine talk-down with a deranged father holding his wife and son at gunpoint in a dingy L.A. house. The neighborhood is surrounded by police, and only Talley has his cool. When the opportunity to take the gunman out arises, Talley passes. "No one dies today," he replies. But the negotiation goes wrong and all three family members end up dead. Talley is devastated.

A year later, Talley is the chief of police in Ventura County, an uneventful, crimeless hamlet. At a nearby deli, three goodfornuthin' local boys ogle the daughter of a wealthy accountant (Kevin Pollak) and get flipped off in return. Thus sets into motion a routine carjacking that becomes quite a deal more than that when the boys get a look at the rich fortresslike house the family lives in. Surely, there must be something more interesting in the house. Sure enough unbeknownst to all but the father, there is a CD hiding in a Heaven Can Wait DVD case that contains a secret something-or-other related to some shady, high-stakes deal with mystery men we never see. These boys have jacked the wrong house on the wrong day.

Talley is called onto the scene, loses one of his officers to gunfire, and quickly hands jurisdiction of the seemingly hopeless situation over to the sheriff's department. He heads home to his troubled wife and daughter (played by real-life daughter Rumer). But Tally is abducted himself and informed that unless he cooperates with the mystery men, his own family will be killed. Cooperating means reestablishing control over the hostage scene and making sure nobody goes in or out until yet more mystery men can arrive and deal with the home and whatever secrets it may hold. So, Talley is on a race against time, balancing two hostage situations and having to somehow wrestle control back from the sheriff and issue baffling orders to a bewildered team of law-enforcement officers.

A twist: The young son in the house, Tommy (Jimmy Bennett), manages to wriggle free and hide in his maze-o-secret-passages with his sister's cell phone and calls Talley. Suddenly, Talley has a link to the inside and can at least secure the DVD while waiting for the evil reinforcements. But no there are two DVDs of Heaven Can Wait. Is it the 1978 one with Warren Beatty? Or the 1943 version with Gene Tierney? Darn! Why couldn't they have chosen Ishtar?

Hostage is getting a lashing from a number of critics for a crime no greater, I think, than averageness. Very little distinguishes Hostage from other suspenseful movies with similar themes. That said, it is successful at generating suspense and providing surprise, and, for the most part, at presenting real people behaving truthfully in extraordinary circumstances.

Willis turns in a respectable, low-key performance (his several heroic tasks are performed and directed plausibly), and the supporting cast returns the favor. Only the three hoodlums veer toward overacting at times, and while I could nitpick for their being over the top, I can't imagine I would behave any less manically if I found myself shut into a fortress with hostages and police everywhere. The camera develops a strange infatuation with one of the hoodlums, Mars (Ben Foster) and can't decide whether to make this sociopath a misunderstood romantic or a Christ figure.

Average, yes. Distinguished, no. But Hostage delivers as promised and is worth, at least, the ransom of a matinee ticket price.

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