The blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I return to the series we begun all the way back in 2010. This time taking on a work from one of our favorite novelists. Robert Crais is a “…writer of hard-boiled L.A. crime fiction“. So described by another author famed for her own, Meg Abbot, in her L.A. Times Magazine piece, which coincidentally published the same year we started this string of book/movie reviews.
In other words, Rachel and I were meant for this.
Famously protective of his popular Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, the former television screenwriter for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice has vowed to keep the tandem off the big screen. Of course, my colleague and I had some fun with the pledge a couple of years ago with our look at Free Fall. In honor of the recent L.A. Times Festival of Books, we’ll take on the only book of his that has made its way to fruition in Hollywood, Hostage. As usual, my colleague will examine the 2001 standalone novel later adapted to film, which I will review.
This underrated book gets lost among the author’s collection, I think. It’s later 2005 movie starred a major action hero, made by a French video game and film director, and adapted for the screen by the same guy who wrote the screenplay for Die Hard 2. Forget that last part. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: Jeff Talley, a front-line negotiator with LAPD’s SWAT unit, was good at this job. A fine husband and father, too. Until one horrendous hostage crisis in particular went south and took an irreparable toll on his psyche. The pieces of his job, marriage and family scattered to the wind as he struggles to escape from his former life as the chief-of-police in a sleepy, affluent bedroom community far from the chaos and crime of Los Angeles. However, a botched invasion/robbery of an auspicious home, one with connections to organized crime, will put Talley back on the hot seat with more than his heart and mind at risk.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“You know what cops do when they retire? They play golf. I don’t want to play golf. I hate fucking golf.” ~ Jeff Talley
Being a ‘Craisie’, a fan and reader of the works of Robert Crais, I’ve gone to a number of book tour stops featuring this SoCal author. Often, he’s regaled attendees with tales of his own readers. Many from law enforcement. A good number write and are vocal critics of books and film. Bob recalled one taciturn cop came up and said to him (paraphrasing) this novel, Hostage, would make for a good movie, but “…they’d probably mess it up.” The novelist added that some years later the same guy approached at another signing event. As he drew up to get his new book autographed, he stood there with a knowing look as they each registered recognition. The words, “Told ‘ya.“, then came Bob’s way.
The officer’s opinion aside, I’ve read a number of reviews for this film in the years since its debut, some a tad hostile, but I hold this film remains an under appreciated work. Both for the lead, filmmaker, and the approach taken with the material. It proved a bit of a launching pad with one young actor at the time, as well. A few people know that Bruce Willis and his company, along with MGM, stepped in with a pre-emptive bid and took Hostage off the table when Robert Crais made it available. His enthusiasm for the story as a vehicle was very apparent. No other offers came close for the property of a former negotiator jammed between a rock and hard place.
The Die Hard star, based on what he saw in the budding French director, byway of his previous film, Nid de guêpes (aka, The Nest, 2002), brought in Florent-Emilio Siri to helm the production. Not a bad move considering in the last decade the French have made quite a name for themselves filming thrillers. I can attest The Nest, District B13 and Sleepless Night (aka Nuit Blanche, the most recent I’ve screened) were thoroughly enjoyable for this action aficionado. As well, French horror is darkly well-regarded these days — i.e., Inside, Irreversible, and Martyrs being so ferocious I freely admit to not have the nerve to screen (that said, let’s agree to not discuss High Tension and its inane ending). Whatever they’re serving with the wine in Gaul, movie people are noticing.
That said, American and French thrillers are stripes of a different color. The action and bullets in each fly about as you’d expect, but with a wholly contrasting feel to them. We tend toward cookie-cutter, they more drama. Compare this film with some recent fare and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a reason for this harping. I surmise this American picture really played better as a French thriller. People who came in presuming our style of thrills and suspense got something they weren’t exactly expecting, even with Willis as the lead. Either way, having this actor there made it that more interesting. Jeff Talley wasn’t a John McClane-clone, especially since he was not “Just a fly in the ointment, Hans.”
Talley, one of Robert Crais’ anguished, damaged characters he’s so good at writing, was not in the least the character so associated with Willis. Internal distress just doesn’t go with McClane. Plus, Jeff was on the outside looking in throughout (not the other way around). Gazing into the situation, and himself. More befitting a drama. Just the same, the author liked Bruce Willis for this:
“…he’s so right to play Talley. Here’s this guy with a kind of weary maturity, haunted by his past, yet you will believe completely that he has the store of strength necessary to do what Talley has to do in the story.”
Perhaps, audiences weren’t jazzed with the tormented role Willis presented. Personally, I like Bruce better when he isn’t reprising John McClane — just don’t get me started with the mess that was A Good Day to Die Hard. Yeah, I realize many didn’t buy the circumstances of a former SWAT negotiator coerced by organized crime, via his captive wife and daughter, into ‘managing’ a hostage crisis to help retrieve a certain disk. The Crais novel had dedicated pages toward building the scenario to a believable degree. Screenwriter Doug Richardson, not so much. Still, he provided a more than serviceable distillation of the material. Keep in mind it’s a thriller, not a police procedural — he captured the gist effectively.
Moreover, the visual-stylist Siri kept to his roots instead of attempting to mimic American actioners with the movie. The director and DP Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci certainly nailed every frame visually as it’s truly a beautifully shot film. In fact, it looks and feels more like a neo noir in later viewings than a typical bullet-fest. Especially when the stand-off scenario shifted into night scenes or went to dark places. Shadows and imagery more distinct with that of ‘black film’. As I mentioned, Siri by this time had already directed two Splinter Cell game variants, Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory, before he ever made his American film debut. Such experience worked to his advantage here, I believe.
Strangely, for an action piece, the film’s best scenes are the most quiet and least stunt-filled. They built the best tension. Talley’s abduction, the turning point of the film, where the syndicate’s thugs claim domain over the sleepy little town’s police chief was magnificently staged — culminating with the brake lights casting a bloody glow on his bound wife and child in his rearview mirror. A quite memorable reveal. So, too, Talley’s anguishing phone dialogues with the trapped 8 year-old hostage in residence, Tommy (Jimmy Bennett), offered a clever dichotomy of the Die Hard Sgt. Powell/McClane interchanges. Of course, with a certain word used 89 times (see any movie quote here) all over the film, what small boy (or man) could resist? I daresay it’s another connection with the 1988 action classic.
“Go ahead. Kill my family. Kill me. Before you do, let me get to Smith’s house and I’m gonna box up all that dead motherfucker’s DVDs and you and the feds can bid on it on eBay! How’s that, smart fuck?”
There was a lot to enjoy in the film, especially if you make the leap of not taking the accountant’s (Kevin Pollak doing solid, small work) hard drive or back-ups into account with the tale. In truth, the screenwriter had to update Crais’ 2001 use of zip disks to DVD-R (given the fast-moving changes in technology since the novel’s publication). Plus, it made for a splendid McGuffin when good ‘ol Walter slipped it into the Heaven Can Wait DVD case as a framing device of the story. The cretin caller not bothering to ask if it’s Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 film, or Warren Beatty’s ’78 remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). The Turner Classic Movies neophyte! Like Die Hard, Hostage‘s filmmakers weren’t so serious as to disregard humor with this endeavor. As well, moving the location from a private community cul-de-sac to a spectacular hillside home added a grand touch in the book to film translation.
This adaptation proved to be a showcase for the French director Siri, and gets better with subsequent viewings. Feels odd to look on a baby-faced Ben Foster these years later, though. He chewed the scenery in a breakout role as the psychotic Mars Krupcheck, to his career’s benefit. Too bad Bruce Willis remains pigeon-holed with too many action roles of late, even at this stage in his (G.I. Joe: Retaliation anyone?). Yet, when he gets to do something strikingly different, like this, still managing to give the bad guys a comeuppance, well, you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. Yes, it’s not Die Hard. What is? Won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (or should I have said glass of wine?), but for my money it’s way undervalued. I have to admit I remain a fan of the film’s finale over the novel’s, as well. This confession may get me drummed out the Craisie Corp, but there it is. Sorry Bob ;-).