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Willis's diehard fans will surrender to 'Hostage'

Some will dismiss ''Hostage" as proof of Bruce Willis's fading box office luster. I prefer to think of it as retrenchment. A ''Die Hard" shrunk down to the domestic scale, it's a B-flick all the way, but it has no pretensions to the contrary, and that's some kind of refreshing.

Miramax and/or Willis himself have no faith in the film -- part of the company's pre-Disney-divorce burnoff, ''Hostage" was screened for critics only under duress and at the last moment -- but, for the life of me, I don't understand what they're ashamed about. Six months from now, it'll look fine on Cinemax at midnight.

Willis plays Jeff Talley, the best and craziest hostage negotiator in Los Angeles, at least until the movie's opening sequence, when it all goes kablooey in his heavily bearded face. Cut to a year later and Talley, shaven and visibly tamed, is chief of police in a tiny California town where nothing ever happens. Doesn't he ever go to the movies? Doesn't he realize that moving to Ventura County ensures that a major bloodbath will occur there?

First off, a trio of redneck teenage psychobillies led by hair-trigger Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) impulsively follow an SUV home to the mountaintop aerie of a man named Smith (Kevin Pollak), hoping to pull off a simple carjacking. But Murphy's Law applies to bad guys too, and the three are forced to tie up Smith's two kids, goth teen-babe Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and whiz-kid little brother Tommy (Jimmy Bennett). Then Mars (Ben Foster), the most homicidal of the three, shoots a policewoman, and the situation devolves into a hostage standoff, one which Chief Talley is happy to turn over to the big city boys.

But wait! There's more! Mr. Smith is the accountant for shadowy mobsters, and they need an incriminating DVD stashed somewhere on the premises. To cajole Talley into taking command of the negotiations, the mobsters kidnap his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and teenage daughter (Rumer Willis).

Hold on a second -- is that why they didn't want critics to see ''Hostage"? Because the star's 16-year-old daughter is in it? Were they afraid we'd say rude things and Willis père would show up at the Globe and go medieval on us? Listen, I wish Rumer were on-screen long enough for me to say anything critical, pro or con. As it is, she has one convincing my-dad's-a-jerk scene and then spends the rest of the movie with a sack on her head. So you'd have to say the jury's still out on that one.

Director Florent Siri has reportedly shown some promise with French action films like 2001's ''The Nest," but here he proves an efficient, uninspired meat-and-potatoes moviemaker. The fun in ''Hostage" lies entirely in keeping track of all the marbles on the board -- Talley playing cops against crooks against other crooks, the teenage hoods in the house, the mysterious ubervillains, little Tommy Smith scampering through the heating ducts trying to save the day. The script is clever without ever being smart, the violence is showy but not cathartic, and the performances are, to put it kindly, a mixed bag.

The best is Tucker, the pride of Brookline's Park School, playing the kind of angry, antisocial loser who probably beat him up for lunch money during recess. The worst is Pollak, who seems embarrassed to have sunk to the level of genre pulp.

Here's what I like about Bruce Willis, though: He acts like this functional swill is as good as ''Pulp Fiction." The man's got exhausted capability down to a science. Yes, he's been playing variations on this role for going on two decades now, but he still hasn't started phoning it in, and I believe this is what is known as professionalism.

With any luck, Willis's turn in the upcoming ''Sin City" will finally bring the actor back into fashion. Not that I imagine he cares. ''Hostage," too, is unimpressed by its own trashy proficiency.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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