In 2005, commercial action cinema witnessed a very fertile cross-pollination of French and American talent. Who could have guessed, even five years ago, that cutting-edge directors like Jean-François Richet (Assault on Precinct 13, 2005) and Florent Siri (The Nest, 2002) would be shooting on American turf with generous resources and star-studded casts?
Where Assault on Precinct 13 (like, from the same company, Jacques Audiard's Fingers  remake The Beat My Heart Skipped ) is effectively a French production that reverses the trend of Americans raiding French cinema for remake material, Hostage is a straight-up-and-down Hollywood assignment.
But producer-star Bruce Willis was extremely canny in tapping Siri for this job, because the result is one of the most exciting and inventive American action movies in years.
Curiously, both Assault and Hostage start with a similar, elaborate set-piece designed to show us why their heroes are no longer up to snuff. Jeff (Willis) was once a brilliant police negotiator in dangerous hostage situations. Now he is a pencil pusher, more concerned with the slow breaking-apart of his family than the urban beat.
That is, until three unruly teenagers decide to break into a Los Angeles home belonging to Walter (Kevin Pollak), an accountant who has his own shady secrets. Like the super hi-tech fortresses of Panic Room (2002) or, more modestly, Australia's Alexandra's Project (2003), this house is designed to keep out the criminal element. But, once that element is inside, the massive security means that no agent of the law can even see in, let alone breach the perimeter.
So Jeff swings into action – and Siri unleashes every crazy plot move imaginable, making full use of communications devices, hidden passageways, indeed anything that can suddenly redefine the spatial co-ordinates of the story. As in The Nest, Siri suggests a subtly political subtext concerning the militarisation of everyday life in advanced, Western countries.
Siri is obviously a big fan of John Woo's action extravaganzas – the kind Woo used to make in Hong Kong rather than those he makes nowadays in America. Siri shares Woo's taste for the preposterous, the outrageous and the melodramatically overstated. And why not? Sometimes a 'plot with so many holes you can drive a truck through it' (as some reviewers like to say) is far preferable to the leaden chains of realistic credibility.
A scene where Jeff fights back tears as a small boy begs him to be a veritable comic-book superhero is pitched wonderfully (by both actor and director) between high drama and high camp. But Hostage hits its delirious height when it deals with the character of the teen hoodlum Mars (Ben Foster), a sociopath of almost Satanic proportions.
Siri uses Mars to switch genre, in an instant, from action to horror. And such switches, which fire around every ten minutes, make this film a rare treat.
© Adrian Martin April 2005