Welcome to Harvey’s Hellhole, a monthly column devoted to spotlighting the movies that were poorly marketed, mishandled, reshaped, neglected or just straight-up destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, during his reign as one of the most powerful studio chiefs in Hollywood. This month, let’s take a break from the Harvey-bashing and use this space to salute a just-retired movie star who did his most underrated work in a Miramax film.
I’m sure plenty of iconic performances ran through people’s heads when Bruce Willis, who has been diagnosed with the brain disorder known as aphasia, announced his retirement from acting. His career-launching turn as wisecracking private eye David Addison on TV’s Moonlighting. His star-making turn as wisecracking cop/action hero John McClane in Die Hard. Hell, I even know people who dug him as the wisecracking, titular cat burglar in Hudson Hawk. (Whaddup, Sean?!) Of course, the man did serious work, giving stellar, dramatic performances in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
When I heard the retirement news, it got me thinking about one impressive, dramatic role he did long ago — in a Miramax film, coincidentally. But it’s not the time he played double-crossing boxer Butch Coolidge in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. I’m talking about his performance as a terrified police chief in the 2005 action thriller Hostage.
Willis’s relationship with the brothers Weinstein was a limited one, mostly comprised of brief turns in Weinstein-produced movies directed by pals/Weinstein star protégés Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. After Fiction, he took an uncredited role in Tarantino’s segment of that anthology flop Four Rooms. As for Rodriguez, he got Willis to appear in his adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City and contribute a cameo in Planet Terror (aka one-half of the Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Grindhouse.)
Hostage is the one-and-only Miramax production with Willis in the lead. And, unlike the Die Hard movies, where he played the role of smart-ass savior, shooting off at the lip while saving lives, Willis goes snark-free on this one.
He’s Jeff Talley, a lawman who has to save the lives of two families in one night. A former SWAT officer and hostage negotiator from LA, he moved his wife (Serena Scott Thomas — yes, Kristin’s sister) and daughter (Rumer Willis — yes, Bruce’s daughter) to a suburban, low-crime community after Talley failed to keep a deranged man from murdering himself and his family.
Crime goes way up one evening when a trio of young-punk hoodlums (Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker and Marshall Allman) decide to slip into a mansion and steal a car from a wealthy, widowed accountant (Kevin Pollak) and his two kids (Jimmy Bennett, Michelle Horn). This soon turns into a hostage situation when one of the hoodlums starts shooting at cops responding to a security alarm. At first, Talley, still traumatized from losing that family, freely turns authority over to the county sheriff’s department. But he soon has to regain control when a group of hooded figures (led by veteran tough guy Kim Coates, whom Willis memorably killed in The Last Boy Scout) force him to go back and retrieve a DVD full of incriminating, encrypted files or they’ll kill his family.
Hostage was basically an opportunity for Willis (who also serves as a producer) to show he can do action with a straight face. You won’t see him shooting off one-liners while crawling through air vents. (A character does spend a lot of screen time in air vents — one of the accountant’s kids.) He must’ve figured we’ve gotten so used to him being a badass smartass, he snapped up the rights to Robert Crais’s 2001 novel of the same name, got Die Hard 2 screenwriter Doug Richardson to adapt it and recruited French filmmaker Florent Emilio Siri (who did the Assault on Precinct 13 quasi-remake The Nest) to put it all on film.
The fact that Willis plays someone more fearful than confident is what attracted him to the project. As he said in a BBC interview, “I’ve saved the world six or seven times now, so I think that audiences have expected me to win and save the day and this story was about a guy who doesn’t look like he’s going to win. It looks like he’s going to lose.”
As Talley springs into action, spinning lies in order to keep the cops, the hoodlums and the masked figures from completing their objectives, Willis quietly lets us know he’s scared and shaken every step of the way. He plays Talley as someone whose steely, stoic face is continually trying not to break out into tears. Although Willis has had vulnerable moments in other action movies — who can forget this tearful scene from the first Hard? — Hostage gave him the chance to be both brave and bruised.
It’s unfortunate that the rest of the cast can’t also get their range on. They’re either badly written (the hoodlums in particular are your standard-issue dirtbags in way over their heads, with Foster’s homicidal weirdo being the most predictably deranged of the bunch) or barely written (Talley’s wife and daughter are mainly there to be kidnapped— and that’s it).
Hostage didn’t turn out to be a big hit for Willis or Miramax. The reviews were mixed, with critics either appreciating its tense, B-movie thrills or slamming it for being lurid and implausible. Eventually, the $77 million flick only grossed $75 million back. And even though Willis returned to churning out bombastic blockbusters (including a couple more Hard sequels) before spending his later years slumming in straight-to-video actioners — most likely in a declining cognitive state — at least Hostage proved that Bruce Willis could save the day without a smirk on his face.
Hostage is streaming on HBO Max.