Hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (producer Bruce Willis) is stuck inside one long, bad day. This even though Hostage is structured in two parts, over a year’s time, beginning with a prologue where Jeff loses some hostages in a gruesomely violent L.A. standoff. “No one dies today,” he barks at the cop who wants to take the opportunity to take out the perp, currently holding his wife ands son at gunpoint. His utter wrongness on this count is intimated right off: he’s exhausted, wired, misunderstanding his own capacity, and so the camera careens, from a credits sequence laid out like a graphic novel, to circle round Jeff in close-up, then whip from cop to cop as they wait on a rooftop across the street from the hostage-holder’s dark-during-daylight home. The snipers poised to shoot, the hostage-taker sweaty and surly, Jeff paces and twists his face as only Willis can.
Within minutes, this scene goes bad, and Jeff suffers mightily (again, showcasing Willis’ particular facial skills). The film cuts to “One year later.” But really, it’s only more of the same time, and incorporated within Willis’ other bad-day work, all the back to the Die Hards. This because Jeff, now a sheriff in slow-moving Bristo Camino, Ventura County, remains caught up, angry, and miserable. Much as in Die Hard, the dedicated, overwrought cop now suffers family troubles: his daughter Amanda (Willis’ daughter Rumer) hates visiting the podunk burbs where dad now lives, and his wife Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) is having a hard time negotiating his new state of perpetual gloom; though neither partner wants a divorce, it seems inevitable. Jane and Jeff exchange sad glances. He just can’t get past himself, specifically, the fact that he made such a costly mistake, precisely because he thought he “knew” his business. And so, he cruises along the surface, gently joshing with his new cop crew, content with the boredom, as it allows him to wallow in guilt and self-pity.
It’s only a matter of time (minutes, actually) before Florent Siri’s film launches into the next phase of Jeff’s bad day. The crisis begins with a clash between rich people (a widower accountant named Smith [Kevin Pollak], plus his two kids, Jennifer [Michelle Horn] and Tommy [Jimmy Bennett]) and a trio of conventionally coded “delinquents” (mad Mars [Ben Foster], frustrated Dennis [Jonathan Tucker], and Dennis’ perky little brother Kevin [Marshall Allman]). The boys’ unconsidered plan to rob the family (instigated when they feel dissed by the snotty, school-uniformed girl) turns hysterical almost immediately. (Point being, apparently, that precocious girls, no matter how angry they may be at their dads, should not flip off scary-looking no-counts in pickup trucks.)
The hysteria is premised on several factors, all costly, in literal and figurative senses. First, the Smith house is extravagantly “secure,” outfitted with cameras, massive drop-down gates, alarms, panic rooms, and an elaborate vent system in which the little boy crawls, hides, and eavesdrops, rather like a mini-me for John McClane. (The fact that the boy feels immediate affinity for Jeff because he sees him on the local news coverage of the siege only underlines the point; Jeff understands little Tommy, too; when the boy calls him on a cell phone, seeking instruction, Jeff promises he will rescue him in language they understand through their shared affection for a certain video game: “Yes Tommy, Captain Wooba’s gonna save Planet Xenon.”)
Second, the nerdy-seeming Smith’s penchant for hyped-up security is a function of his job, that is, he cooks books for a scary, big-stakes villain, desperate to recover a DVD full of illegal accounting info (the keepcase title, aptly, is Heaven Can Wait, the Gene Tierney version), hidden inside the house. To ensure he gets it, the villain (who remains hidden behind shadows and a mask, so his creepy) kidnaps Jeff’s family. And so he’s faced with impossible choices repeatedly, as he must figure whom to risk as he tries to negotiate with the kids and also get around the bumbling cops, feds, and press who swarm the scene, with the usual overkill — all noisy choppers, bright lights, tremendous weapons, and tv news broadcasting their positions to the kids inside.
Willis and the film — adapted by Doug Richardson from Robert Crais’ novel — walk a decidedly unfine line between gargantuan action (explosions, speeding vehicles, lots of sensational shooting and brutal physical abusing) and disturbing insight into the film’s cultural context. Unlike Die Hard, where John’s saving the day is climactic and exuberant (indicated most pseudo-ironically by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”), the new film is operatic and ominous, not least because the chief villain is the predator-boy Mars rather than the wickedly witty Hans Gruber [Alan Rickman]). If you think that Jeff’s bad day is long, consider that the horror embodied by Mars combines fears that stretch across entire eras (French director Siri, in his first U.S. film, spreads out his cinematic allusions). These range form the harsh psycho-gangster thrillers of the ’40s (say, White Heat ), to “pure evil” figures like Damien (to quote Lil Kim, “Dressed in all black like The Omen) to contemporary psycho-kids and angry rocker imagery (Trent Reznor would be Mars’ most obvious inspiration, as his fiery end, glimpsed in the film’s trailer, evokes more than one despairing, angry, violent industrial music video).
Evil Boy doesn’t comprehend the effects of his meanness, and besides, he really does just want to be loved (as indicated in his couple of creepy interactions with Jennifer). As Hostage allows you to dismiss or fixate on Mars’ symptomatic deviance, or even the masked corporate monster, it tends to let the hubristic fathers — Walter and Jeff — off a few hooks, even though their sins are more calculated than Mars’ (and less informed than the masked villain’s). On this level, the movie is concerned with the recovery of the nuclear family by violence (familiar from, yes, Die Hard and all the movies that copied it). And on another, very related, level, it’s also tuned in to current politics, narrating the failure of isolationism, as both Jeff and smarmy, illegally wealthy Smith imagine they can lock themselves up apart from the world.
More disturbingly and perhaps aptly, Hostage is also about the failure of certainty. Jeff, Smith, the masked villain, and even Mars, to an extent, all believe they can control their environments and set their own terms of engagement. If Mars’ fallacy is obvious (he’s a kid and he’s all trembly-lipped psychotic), the adults’ should be as well. They’re all wrong — all of them and completely — even if the film intimates that the devastation and trauma they wreak might be recontained. Jeff might get his redemption, but his long bad day will never really be over.