Problems extend beyond adaptation of the Robert Crais bestseller about a negotiator having to double-deal two hostage situations -- one involving his own family -- what sends thriller over the precipice is a plot that never knows when enough is enough. Fans will welcome Bruce Willis back as an action man, overseas and vid helping profit margins.

An overstuffed plot can be at the root of a poor screenplay as evidenced in “Hostage.” Although problems extend beyond scripter Doug Richardson’s adaptation of the Robert Crais bestseller about a negotiator having to double-deal two hostage situations — one involving his own family — what sends this initially tense thriller over the precipice is a plot scheme that never knows when enough is enough. Fans will welcome Bruce Willis back as an action man, but this turn will not do any better biz than Willis’ equally misbegotten “Tears of the Sun,” with overseas and vid helping profit margins.

Early reels are filled with considerable promise, as they lay down a fairly standard blueprint of a cop suspenser but decorated with elaborate style and tension under the helming of Florent Siri, a French action specialist (“The Nest”) on his first studio assignment. A Gallic influence even holds sway over the stark, graphics-heavy opening title sequence (care of firm Specimen France), catapulted along by the exceptionally talented French composer Alexandre Desplat.

Prelude and what follows, though, are strictly all-American. Ace hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis) is tragically confronted with his first failed rescue attempt near downtown Los Angeles. After this incident, Jeff and family move north to the sleepy Ventura County burg of Bristo Camino, where he assumes top cop mantle a year later.

“Hostage” is never strong in the character department, and a misbegotten backgrounder involving Jeff’s daughter (Willis’ real offspring, Rumer Willis) and wife (Serena Scott Thomas) is inserted only for the plot hook it provides later.

Carjackers Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) and Mars (Ben Foster) –with Dennis’ younger, innocent brother Kevin (Marshall Allman) along for the ride — tool around the town looking for victims, and spot the gleaming SUV driven by Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak). Inexplicably letting Walter drive back to his heavily secured fortress of a mansion perched in the middle of the coastal mountains, Dennis and Mars foolishly decide to try the boost after breaking into the home.

Tucker’s proclivity for young men in over their head works well for him as his Dennis seems to want to prove his manhood to new pal Mars, who Foster instantly signals is a hellish psychopath. This leads to trouble with Walter knocked out cold and Walter’s sullen teen daughter Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and young boy Tommy (Jimmy Bennett) held at gunpoint. Mars’ point-blank killing of a visiting cop pulls Jeff back into his old mode as hostage manager.

Tension can be cut with a knife in these sections, but as the story further ramps up the complications, poor plot mechanics run pic off the road.

Just as Jeff appears to have passed the law enforcement reins over to county cops, another set of hooded bad guys enters the picture, threatening to kill Jeff’s kin if he doesn’t extract a certain DVD from Walter’s home office. Resembling a poor copy of Jack Bauer, the rule-breaking hero of “24,” Jeff does what he must to obey the demands, but the effect on the movie is to prolong the inevitable rather than tighten the suspense.

“Hostage” plays like a missed opportunity for everyone involved, including Willis, who knows this kind of material inside out yet can’t rescue the project by himself. Foster’s tendency to overact is greenlit to an unfortunate degree, while Pollak comes off the best.

Siri appears to have a future as a Hollywood action director with the right script. Production package is fabulous, with production designer Larry Fulton showing off an extraordinary sense of physical space with Walter’s to-die-for home, and Desplat tempting excess in his latest expansive and adventurous score.

Hostage

Production

A Miramax release of a Miramax Films and Stratus Film Co. presentation of a Cheyenne Enterprise production and Equity Pictures Medienfonds GmbH & Co. KG II production in association with Syndicate Films Intl. Produced by Bruce Willis, Arnold Rifkin, Mark Gordon, Bob Yari. Executive producers, Hawk Koch, David Wally, Andreas Thiesmeyer, Josef Lautenschlager. Co-producers, David Willis, Gerd Koechlin, Manfred Heid. Directed by Florent Siri. Screenplay, Doug Richardson, based on the novel by Robert Crais.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Deluxe prints; Panavision widescreen), Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci; editors, Olivier Gajan, Richard J.P. Byard; music, Alexandre Desplat; music supervisor, Richard Glasser; production designer, Larry Fulton; art director, Keith P. Cunningham; set designers, C. Scott Baker, Kevin Cross, Luke Freeborn, Dawn Brown Manser; set decorator, Cindy Carr; costume designer, Elisabetta Beraldo; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Peter J. Devlin, Phillip W. Palmer; sound designers, Stephen Hunter Flick, Steven Ticknor; supervising sound editors, Flick, Tickner; video effects supervisor, Matthew Morrissey; visual effects supervisor, Feli Di Giorgio; special effects coordinator, Larz Anderson; visual effects, Creo Collective; stunt coordinator, Billy Burton; associate producers, Susanne Bohnet, Stephen Eads; assistant director, Mark Cotone; second unit director, Billy Burton; second unit camera, Robert La Bonge; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. Reviewed at Aidikoff screening room, Beverly Hills, March 4, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Jeff Talley - Bruce Willis Walter Smith - Kevin Pollak Mars - Ben Foster Dennis - Jonathan Tucker Kevin - Marshall Allman Jennifer Smith - Michelle Horn Tommy Smith - Jimmy Bennett Laura - Tina Lifford The Watchman - Kim Coates Jane Talley - Serena Scott Thomas Wil - Rob Knepper Amanda Talley - Rumer Willis

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