Why don’t you tell me something that I don’t fucking know?
— Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis), Hostage
“I really wanted to do a different establishing shot,” says director Florent Siri, “You know, in one shot, you understand what is the situation.” This as the camera pulls out through a barred window (through which you see a distressed man, with gun, hone, and bloody face) up to a rooftop, where cops and snipers await and choppers zoom. It is in fact a terrific shot, and, as Siri says, “it’s big, it’s huge, there are a lot of people.” One of these people is veteran LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis). The camera circles over and around him, his beard and long hair, observes Siri, show that Talley is “very sure of himself,” and “step by step, Bruce is going to lose his situation.” That is, Jeff Talley.
Siri’s commentary for Hostage is enthusiastic in a low-key kind of way, his French-accented English (this is his first U.S. film, and, as he says, Willis tapped him after seeing his first French movie, a remake of Assault on Precinct 13) seeming to underline his newness to Hollywood machinery. Jeff, by contrast, is Mr. Cocky Experience. “No one dies today,” he barks at the cop who wants to take out the perp, currently holding his wife ands son at gunpoint. Jeff’s utter wrongness on this count is intimated right off: he’s exhausted, wired, misunderstanding his own capacity.
As Jeff loses control of this first scene’s negotiations — with a father who’s holding his wife and young son — the imagery rather smartly turns inside. A big open-air and low angle shot of Jeff on the roof, with the sky stretching behind him, cuts to a high angle, dark and confined shot, the boy hiding in a closet as his religious fanatic father comes at him. “I hated doing this,” admits Siri, “Smash a phone in the face of a kid, but it was very important for the audience. After he smashes the phone, the situation is completely different.” Indeed: the violence us brutal, unnerving, and as Siri puts it, “very stylized.” (The DVD offers some other insights into how the violence and other elements were conceived, in a 12-minute promotional doc, “Taking Hostage Behind the Scenes,” featuring cast and crew telling you how great it was to work on the project, and six deleted and two extended scenes.)
Because this first sequence is all about setting up Jeff’s tragedy, the child will suffer mightily, shot by his dad and dying in front of Jeff, his eyes pleading, afraid, maybe reproachful, as Jeff has previously promised to save him. Jeff certainly sees a reproach. The film cuts to “One year later.” But really, it’s only more of the same time, with Jeff ensconced in a new job, a sheriff in slow-moving Bristo Camino, Ventura County. But he’s still caught up inside his guilt, and, much as in Die Hard, the dedicated, overwrought cop has imposed his upset on his family. 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 perpetual gloom; though neither partner wants a divorce, it seems inevitable. Jane and Jeff exchange sad glances. He can’t get past his failure. 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 self-pity.
The next crisis, because there must be one, begins with a clash between rich people — widower accountant Smith (Kevin Pollak), plus his two kids, Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) — and a trio of conventionally coded “delinquents,” whom Siri says he associated with the “Columbine kids,” 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. Siri notes that his perception of these derelict and frankly scary boys is shaped not only by his experience with “American movies,” but also by his desire to “tell something, to speak about the youth in general. I was in shock when I saw the Columbine kids, what they did with the school… [I wanted to say] these youths are really in danger, because they carry weapons and their interpretation of the American Dream is taking guns and grab the money.”
The boys’ desires — for the Smiths’ SUV, the self-assured Jennifer, the ease with which rich people walk through life — sets the hysteria within a particular frame. They follow the Smiths home and take them hostage inside. The house is ironically extravagantly “secure,” outfitted with cameras, massive drop-down gates, alarms, panic rooms, and an elaborate vent system in which little Tommy regularly crawls, hides, and eavesdrops. The boys’ entrance is introduced by a surveillance monitor, though none of the family members spots them. The actual violence comes fast: when the most psycho boy, Mars, shoots one of Jeff’s cops (in an image that Siri identifies as an homage to Sergio Leone), cops and tv crews descend on the scene, and Jeff is back inside a calamity.
Soon enough, it’s clear that Smith’s penchant for hyped-up security is a function of his job, that is, cooking books for some big-stakes, masked villain, who reframes the situation by demanding the return of a DVD full of info, hidden inside the house. To ensure he gets it, the villain 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 monster kids inside.
The film, adapted by Doug Richardson from Robert Crais’ novel, thus teeters between gargantuan action (explosions, speeding vehicles, lots of sensational shooting and physical abusing) and a broader cultural critique — of mass media, of the production of killer kids, of the anger instigated by class immobility. Operatic and ominous, Hostage focuses on the dire ugliness of the youthful super-predator. When both Mars and Jeff comment sarcastically and separately on the excesses of “fucking rich people,” Siri notes, “My idea was to have a social connection to the movie… and to find that Bruce and those white trash kids come from the same social class.”
Mars’ ferocity is somewhat undone (or rather, made drearily stereotypical) when he reveals that he really does just want to be loved, indicated in a couple of creepy interactions with Jennifer. This familiarity allows you either to dismiss or fixate on Mars’ symptomatic deviance, or even the masked corporate villain, and lets 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. And on another, related, level, it’s also tuned in to current politics, narrating the failure of isolationism, as both Jeff and illegally wealthy Smith imagine they can lock themselves up, and remain apart from the world.
More disturbingly, Hostage is 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, if not turned directly into heroic triumph. It’s the spin that makes it okay or not. Jeff might get his redemption, but his crisis will never really be over.