The job of a police chief in a small Californian mountain town is not an exciting one. Traffic accidents and the occasional break-in are about as dramatic as it gets. For seasoned police officer Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis), peace and quiet are exactly what he needs. Talley used to be a hostage negotiator for the LAPD until he made a mistake that cost a woman and her child their lives. Changing jobs may have spared him a breakdown but the move hasn't pleased his family. His teenage daughter (Rumer Willis - Bruce's daughter) has turned angry and sullen and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) is contemplating divorce.
Talley's stress-free existence is brought to an end by a relatively minor crime. Three young criminals (Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker and Marshall Allman) break into the palacial home of a rich accountant (Kevin Pollak) to steal his car keys. The robbery goes horribly wrong and a police officer who comes to investigate is shot. As more squad cars arrive, the panicking criminals take the accountant and his two children (Michelle Horn and Jimmy Bennett) hostage and threaten to shoot them, creating exactly the kind of tense stand-off Talley had hoped to put behind him.
The worst is yet to come. The accountant works for a crime family, which urgently requires the data contained on a DVD in his study to complete a deal. There's no way to predict how long the siege will last so the mob come up with a drastic solution. They abduct Chief Talley's family and order him to retrieve the disc for them. This puts Talley in the horrible position of having to endanger the innocents inside the besieged house to save his own family. And, as if that wasn't enough, there's one more complication: one of the housebreakers is a homicidal psychopath with designs on the accountant's teenage daughter.
Hostage begins with a clever, well thought-out premise and builds a great deal of tension in its first hour as the crisis escalates out of control. What lets the film down is the way the plot is subsequently developed and resolved. The twists which would have sustained the suspense throughout the second half aren't there and the plotting isn't nearly as tight as a thriller's ought to be. Example: after Talley's wife and daughter have been kidnapped, they virtually disappear from the story. There's no sense of an immediate threat to their lives if Talley puts a foot wrong, even though we're told this is the case. A great thriller like Die Hard, No Way Out or last year's Cellular doesn't just set up a situation and rest on its laurels, it keeps on surprising us and turning the screws all the way through.
Although it's disappointing, the movie does have enough going for it to hold the attention. I enjoyed director Florent Siri's unashamedly over the top direction, which calls to mind Luc Besson, with the occasional dash of Dario Argento. This makes a refreshing change from every other action director who wants to be Michael Bay. The action scenes are hit and miss but that's the fault of the writing rather than the direction. The grand guignol finale in the house works nicely but the gunfight that follows it is unsatisfying and difficult to swallow. I should warn you that some viewers may find Hostage's violence unpalatable, especially since the victims are often children.
Bruce Willis is always good value playing the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like Clint Eastwood, he can be every bit the craggy action man and still be vulnerable and human. The younger members of the cast are also impressive, particularly Jonathan Tucker as the nominal leader of the housebreakers. What the film lacks is a great villain. Ben Foster is scary but he never poses much of a threat to Bruce Willis, while the gangsters appear only in the shadows or in balaclavas. It's hard to root against people you never see.