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Holding the Thriller Genre 'Hostage'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page N03

A certain perversity drew the boy to the poorly received "Hostage" on a recent cold, wet afternoon. Possibly it was a fondness for bullet-headed tragic warrior Bruce Willis, or possibly it was a simple nihilistic hunger to waste time amid guns, carnage and 'splosions.

This defiantly ungood thriller, however, had a certain generic rot to it that made its banality almost archetypal. It was just about every bad thriller of the past 10 or 20 years crammed into one: giganticism (achieved through computer-generated imagery), bombast, overacting (the tics gnawing the faces of the actors!), too much violence too stupidly done and a plot so full of holes you could float a small planet through it.

Bruce Willis's latest commits the sins that have taken an honorable class of films and trashed it. (Miramax Films)

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Three perfect small thrillers that illustrate how well this kind of movie can be made:

Hickey and Boggs (1972). A tough private-eye caper, set in a gassy, steamy Los Angeles, it stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was directed by Culp a few years after the end of their run on "I Spy," when their chemistry and timing were superb and long before Cosby had morphed into the sentimentalized Dr. Cliff Huxtable. In the screenplay, by the very young Walter Hill, these two guys try to track down the $400,000 from a violent bank job; the mob, alas, wants it too, and so do the cops. Far from being the comic TV spinoff you might expect, the movie is harsh, nihilistic and full of bravura character touches. It's also surprisingly violent, given the middle-class icon that Cosby later became. But the best thing about it is, it knows exactly what it's doing every step of the way.

Charley Varrick (1973) is the film Don Siegel made after "Dirty Harry," and it's superb in every way. As with Cosby's performance, this one has an unusual casting stroke, in the title role: A shrewd small-time crook, on the run from the mob after a rural bank job netted an extraordinary fortune, is played by Walter Matthau. And he's terrific as a guy who knows the score and figures the angles and, without any shooting, cleverly outmaneuvers several more imposing antagonists, all set against hardscrabble rural New Mexico.

Juggernaut (1974) is a small masterpiece of naturalism by an extremely unnaturalistic filmmaker: Richard Lester, of the Beatles movies, known for his camera high jinks. He subjected himself to serious story discipline in this tight, unbearably suspenseful tale of a liner at sea with complex bombs aboard that will detonate if a payment isn't made. Omar Sharif is the captain, Richard Harris the Royal Navy bomb specialist flown in with a team to defuse the ticking infernal machines, and the very young Anthony Hopkins (is that a cast or what?!) as the London detective charged with finding the mastermind behind it all. Again: no giganticism, no absurd implausibilities, no incredible coincidences. They knew how to do it in the '70s.

So it struck me as a perfect vehicle to examine a clinical question: What is wrong with the thriller today? (The spoilers in this article will not likely hurt its already lackluster box office performance.)

The answer: Filmmakers have lost sight of the negotiation they're engaged in with the viewer.

It's best to consider this transaction as economic in nature. The viewer wants to be entertained. Thus he willingly opens a line of credit to the storytelling. He does this in the first few seconds of the film.

In this one, we open in a hostage situation in low-rent Los Angeles, where hardened vet negotiator Willis is trying to talk a psycho out of his rampage. It fails. The psycho, a woman and a child die. That more or less sets the movie up: This will be a hard-edged, modern story. Therefore we make a rapid calculation on the implausibility abacus and allow it a credit line of three impossibilities.

We want to be entertained, so without thinking about it, we take the reality factor that the movie has established and we say, "Okay, you can do three things that are ridiculous. For those three I will willingly suspend my awareness of cause-effect, of physics, of statistical probability, all those underpinnings of the rational world. You are allowed to violate them, without penalty -- but three times only."

But "Hostage" is a pig: It snarls through its session at the trough and almost within minutes devours all three. Then it twists off into absurdity.

The situation: A year later, three punks in a small California town -- where tragic warrior retiree Willis is now the police chief -- try to hijack a rich guy's car, end up invading his home and are put under siege by cops and deputies. The rich guy (Kevin Pollak's character) and his two kids are held hostage. Willis begins tense negotiations to coax the punks out. The cute kid hostage escapes his bonds, crawls into the duct system and scurries through the house reporting via cell phone to Willis, whom he has seen on TV. Then it develops that Pollak is some kind of supergrade accountant working for, er, them. Them? You know, them, the Big Boys, the Puppet Masters, every hack thriller scribe's lamest concoction for a villain because it needs no specificality and is able to do everything instantly. It seems there's a highly important DVD in the house with encrypted bank account numbers. Thus the bad guys counter-kidnap Willis's family to exert leverage on him to recover the disc rather than the hostages. Moreover, they will dispatch an agent to monitor and control.

Here the movie falls apart.

The representative of them turns out to be a phony FBI SWAT team in some kind of armored assault vehicle, just the thing for castle razings and house gate crashings. And you think: Bankrupt! Overdrawn! Close out the account!

1. Where did this dark secret organization get seven or eight highly trained commandos in a few hours' notice? Remember: These are not simply commandos; they are commandos who are able to pass themselves off as FBI agents in a heavily professionalized law enforcement environment, where credentials would be necessary, and, more important, cultural commonality with the agents they are now among would be highly noticeable. Where would they get such men so quickly?

2. Where did they get that vehicle, complete with its FBI insignia painted prominently on the doors? These are custom babies, very expensive, and custom paint jobs take time, far more than the movie gives them.

3. Wouldn't the locals be in some kind of coordination with higher FBI headquarters by e-mail or phone? Wouldn't there be a district attorney to advise on jurisdictional matters? Wouldn't the California Highway Patrol be involved? These are, again, highly professionalized, cross-checked, monitored situations: Strangers in an armored Hummer don't just show up, claim to be feds and take over.

I understand the logic here: The filmmakers needed a big bang to make the movie stand out in the marketplace, and their assumption was that at this point in the movie -- the third act -- the plot was moving so fast and the audience was so into it that our cause-effect or likelihood index had gone into shutdown.

But it didn't happen.

The best thrillers -- see the three on this page -- are small, tight, resonant; and what's at stake is recognizably in the real world. "Hostage" is a balloon in the Macy's Parade of Bad Movies: huge and out of control and not very interesting to begin with.

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