How do you solve a problem like Bruce Willis? On the one hand, he's the barrel-chested, bullet-headed, no-nonsense action hero who takes out the trash in wise-cracking skull-thwackers such as Die Hard (and its ongoing sequels) and The Last Boy Scout. On the other hand, he's the surprisingly sensitive Hollywood star whose money-spinning presence has helped promote such admirably intelligent fare as Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys and M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense.
Occasionally a movie comes along that allows Willis to be both smart and violent, such as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, in which he played a boxer who wields a punch, a chainsaw and a samurai sword with arch postmodern irony. But more often than not, Willis has had to choose between flexing his muscles and exercising his grey matter. Ask critics to name their favourite Willis film and they may well pick Alan Rudolph's Mortal Thoughts, a brilliant but sadly little-seen thriller in which Willis excelled as a resolutely unheroic abusive spouse. But ask a multiplex audience which new Bruce movie they're most looking forward to and chances are it'll be the forthcoming Die Hard 4.0, the prospect of which bespeaks a growing desperation for another sure-fire, no-brain, bankable hit.
All of which brings us to Hostage, a nasty, manipulative thriller that dearly wants to assert its offbeat, upmarket credentials (hey, the director's French!) even as it beats the audience about the head with gormless, explosive action. Willis stars as a top-flight LAPD hostage negotiator (stop sniggering at the back), Jeff Talley, whose winning streak ends in the film's opening moments when he makes a bad call on some off-the-peg crazy, with blood-splattered results.
Stricken with guilt, Talley shaves his head, hangs up his scruffy duds, and skulks off to become a uniformed police chief in the quiet backwater of Bristo Camino. Here, every day is a "low-crime Monday" - until three adolescent mongrels break into a house in an affluent neighbourhood, shoot a cop and hold hostage a family whose dad just happens to be an accountant for the Mob. To complicate matters, Talley's own family are kidnapped by said Mob, who want him to play this one according to their rules. Et voila! We have the Big Moral Dilemma that is summed up in the film's provocative tag line: "Would you sacrifice another family to save your own?"
According to the film's director, Florent Siri, whose impressive Euro-thriller Nid de guepes/The Nest brought him international attention, Hostage is "a psychological thriller about redemption" that owes a stylistic debt to the conventions of film noir. This sounds promising, but sadly it is utter bunk. In spite of the labyrinthine convolutions of its preposterous plot (clumsily adapted from a novel by Robert Crais), Hostage is a lame-brained cross between Die Hard (1 and 2) and The Negotiator, with Willis once again forced to sort out his family problems at the same time as dealing with armed hostage-takers with bad haircuts.
So whereas, in Die Hard, it was Willis who got to crawl around in air vents while maintaining radio contact with a knackered old cop on the outside, this time it's little Jimmy Bennett who does the crawling while world-weary Bruce wheezes away encouragingly on the cellphone. But when the shit comes down, it's left to Willis to strip off his shirt and do all the shooting and shouting stuff - though it's with a look of grim regret rather than the macho pout of yore. Hell, he even gets to cry, albeit briefly, presumably as proof of the film's character-led credentials.
There is something very dispiriting about a glossy, big-budget Hollywood thriller relying so heavily on the exploitative spectacle of suffering loved ones (bloodstained sons, shackled wives, abused daughters) to court our attentions. The bad guys are either drug-addled dope-heads or balaclava'd Mafiosi, all of whom appear to have escaped from some dreadful TV crime soap. As for Willis, the parameters of his "moral dilemma" are expressed in a succession of nostril-flaring looks that range from a moderate scowl (signifying every- day melancholy) through a slightly more pinched scowl (troubled and/or conflicted) to a full-on eye-bulging scowl (angry, but also troubled and conflicted, and probably a bit melancholy), with an open-mouthed howl thrown in for variety when blowing things up or weeping uncontrollably.
Siri shoots everything in those cod-sepia tones that pass for profundity in the world of pop promos, and lays on a thundering semaphore score that ensures we don't miss any of the Big Moral Dilemmas or Heartbreaking Emotional Conflicts. Only Kevin Pollak emerges unscathed, essaying a slimy supporting cameo as the family man laundering filthy lucre before getting bashed in the head and spending the remainder of the movie in a coma. If only the rest of us had been so lucky.