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Florent Emilio Siri's Hostage got a nice critical and box-office spanking when it hit theaters in March 2005. In retrospect (particularly given the praise heaped a month later on the more overtly "arty" Bruce Willis violence-feast Sin City), the bad reviews feel a bit like one of those herd-animal pile-ons we see from time to time in the critical trade — the sort where the pundits seem to collectively decide an actor or film might make a fun little piñata, lest anyone be caught looking uncool diving into something billed as a straightforward B-picture. (The Last Boy Scout took these sorts of beatings for years.) It's a real shame in this case, because Hostage is anything but straightforward — it frequently transcends genre as an ambitious, intelligent, well-acted and brazenly (often goofily) symbolic thriller that finds Mr. Willis finally back doing what he does best: taking a beating. Yes, Bruno excels in stories that heap abuse on his magnificent bald pate. His best work tends to show up in films like Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable, and 12 Monkeys, when his characters are backed into corners, tormented into action. And in that regard, Willis has never been better than he is in Siri's thriller — which wedges a cop between the mother of all rocks and hard places. As hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, Willis has to save a white-collar criminal (Kevin Pollak) and his family after their high-tech mansion is hijacked by two idiot brothers and a psychopath (Jonathan Tucker, Marshall Allman, and a wonderfully loony Ben Foster). And that would be plenty of plot for a normal siege film — but Talley also has to deal on the sly with a second, far more professional group of kidnappers. They've taken his wife and daughter hostage, and their ransom is a DVD-ROM disc that Talley has to steal from the mansion — right under the noses of the cops surrounding the house. It's a dense plot that allows Willis to give a performance we haven't quite seen from him before: He drags the sort of anguished character he plays in films like The Sixth Sense into an action setting. The result is a tough but frightened guy — someone who can kick down a door, then burst into wide wales of tears when he finds a dead body inside. Willis isn't playing a hero; he's playing a man. Meanwhile, director Siri (The Nest) is mostly successful at spinning all of the plates in the plot- and character-choked script. And he does what all great siege-film directors do: He clearly sets up the geography of the problem.

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However, Siri also makes the film about something. (There are a lot of men negotiating in Hostage, but several of those negotiations are with wives and children.) He also shoots the movie with devastating flair. Siri loves to film human faces — particularly when they're in their death rattles — and between some confident and inventive set pieces, he lets actors indulge strange little moments, as when Willis obsessively combs his beard or Foster offers a tied-up kid a cigarette. The movie's best scene is a quietly creepy negotiation, as a kidnapper purrs in Talley's ear as he quietly clicks Talley into a car seat, handcuffs him to the steering wheel, and puts a hammer lock around his neck — all so the kidnapper can safely show Talley something horrible. To be fair to Hostage's detractors, Siri does finally drop a couple of those spinning plates in the film's final third. Tucker and Allman are fairly bland as the criminal brothers — Ben Foster eats them for breakfast — and a network of air ducts and tunnels in Pollak's house becomes a little too convenient, almost a parody of the "Die Hard in a [blank]" film pitch. Also, as in Collateral, bystanders and police officers (and logic) tend to vanish so the film's final confrontation can take on iconic, almost supernatural proportions. A haunting image of Pollak's teenage daughter draped in a towel, looking more than a little like the Virgin Mary as a house burns down around her, is the sort of artful, over-the-top filmmaking Siri indulges here. But if it means his final act is less interested in creating the satisfying dramatic heft of, say, Die Hard, then at least the director is far more interested in pure cinema. Buena Vista's DVD release of Hostage offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a soft-spoken commentary from director Florent Emilio Siri and the featurette "Taking Hostage Behind the Scenes" (13 min.). Also included are six deleted scenes and two extended scenes, all with optional director's commentary. Keep-case.
M.E. Russell

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