Home > Reviews > HOSTAGE – Alexandre Desplat

HOSTAGE – Alexandre Desplat

hostageOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

March 11th 2005 was unofficially “Alexandre Desplat Day” in US cinemas, when his first two major Hollywood studio films – Hostage and The Upside of Anger – opened in theatres across the country. The 44-year-old Parisian has crept up on the world of film music; having worked solidly in Europe since the early 1990s, people first sat up and took notice following his Golden Globe nomination for Girl With a Pearl Earring in 2003, a success which he capitalized on with the controversial but critically acclaimed Birth in 2004. With the exception of Gabriel Yared, there hasn’t been a French composer in the Hollywood mainstream since Maurice Jarre retired, and before that since the death of Georges Delerue. Desplat more than has the talent to fill their considerable shoes. And, with Hostage, he also shows a great deal of range.

A white-knuckle thriller from French action director Florent Siri, Hostage is Bruce Willis’s latest attempt to re-capture the box-office glory he enjoyed in the 1980s and 90s with the Die Hard series. He plays LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley, a master tactician in the world of crime negotiation, whose world is torn apart when an entire family is massacred during one of his operations. A year later, and Jeff is now the chief of police in a small Ventura County community, a world away from the dangerous streets of Los Angeles. Despite some problems with his wife (Serena Scott-Thomas) and daughter (Rumer Willis), Jeff is happy – until three kids (Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker, Marshall Allman) break into a house in the rich part of town and take accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his children (Jimmy Bennett and Michele Horn) hostage. Before long, Jeff is thrown headlong into a dangerous situation, with three unpredictable small-time crooks in above their heads. However, things get decidedly worse when a much more sinister organization take an interest in the goings on in the Smith household, and kidnap Jeff’s family in order to get what they want out of the situation…

One of the most satisfying things about Hostage is how intelligent it is; this isn’t some simple Hollywood shoot-em-up, where the protagonists are super-human muscle men and the villains one-dimensional caricatures. Doug Richardson’s superior screenplay never panders to audience expectations, and isn’t afraid to play against the genre rules, resulting in a film which has just the right combination of brains, balls and thrills. This is one of Bruce Willis’s best roles in several years, a sort-of return to his 1980s heyday after the quietness of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but without the macho posturing that dominated his earlier work. He makes Jeff a man searching for peace and redemption after a life on the edge, and the desperation he feels when placed into his impossible situation is almost palpable. The supporting cast are generally excellent, especially Jimmy Bennett as the resourceful kid who out-smarts the crooks, and of course it’s always good to see Kevin Pollak back on the big screen, even if he does spend the majority of his screen-time unconscious. It’s also worth mentioning the largely brilliant cinematography of Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci, who somehow manages to come up with new and unique ways of shooting mundane things like mountains and houses so they appear both appealing and disorientating. Also, the main title design is a treat: although it was obviously inspired by the “writing names on buildings” trick from Panic Room, it makes a great change to see a director take the time and trouble to introduce his movie in a new and interesting way.

Musically, Hostage is a triumph, in that it takes the genre conventions (large orchestra, action sequences) and runs with them in new and interesting directions. This is by no means a typical Hollywood action score: Desplat brings his adventurous European sensibilities to the table, and mixes it with the elegance musical caress he brought to his more familiar art-house fare, and makes Hostage arguably one of the most entertaining and intelligent action thriller scores in several years.

Unusually, the central motif of the score is a built vocal, performed in the opening cue, “Child’s Spirit”, by Desplat’s young daughter Antonia. Theme seeks to capture the emotional torment at the heart of Talley’s plight: everything in this film is done by, or for, children (or at least young adults), and the vaguely sinister but undeniably attractive theme allows this central motif to shine through. With regular vocal recapitulations in cues such as “FBI”, “The Killer” and the finale reprise, in addition to various statements by piano and strings, the Spirit theme anchors the score – but to Desplat’s credit, there is much, much more on offer.

There is an Elliot Goldenthal influence in the main title, “Hostage”, a driving, powerful setting of the main theme for strings which gradually builds to encompass the entire orchestra with special emphasis on brass and percussion. For some reason, the action music in the second half of the cue reminds me of Goldenthal’s theme for SWAT, all blood and thunder, but without the electronic/funk element. This style is carried over into the opening score cue, “Canyon Inn”, which adds an electric cello into the mix and swells to some glorious crescendos as the film’s setting is revealed nestling in the Santa Monica Mountains, and later into the strident “The Negotiation” and “The Trade”, two remarkable pieces of suspenseful build-up which sees the rhythmic basses counter-pointing with deep, imposing brass notes.

There are definite John Barry stylistics which kick in during “The Waterfall”, which begins with a flamboyant string-and-bass flute flourish straight out of the James Bond canon, and features again in a more tense setting in “Drive”, which is vaguely reminiscent of parts of the classic Goldfinger. A further influence comes, somewhat surprisingly, from John Williams’s Home Alone, and in the shape of the theme for the young boy at the heart of the kidnap plot, Tommy Smith. “Tommy’s Theme” is a sprightly and playful dance for recorder and orchestra which recalls the same kind of light-heartedness which accompanied the antics of Macaulay Culkin in the 1991 Christmas classic, and even briefly brings to mind the work of that other great European composer, Wojciech Kilar. Recapitulations in “The Secret Place”, “House on Fire” and the melancholy “Captain Wooba” go a long way to strengthening the theme’s impact, and although the theme is often used in juxtaposition to more urgent, dramatic material, it nevertheless highlights the young boy’s resourcefulness in the face of danger.

The rest of the time, Desplat’s score oscillates between powerful action (the sensational “Crawl Space”, the aforementioned “House on Fire”), knife-edge suspense (“Breaking In”), large-scale crescendos (“The House”) and moments of emotion (“Talley’s Theme”) which make use of the full range of the London Symphony Orchestra and, again, young Desplat’s voice. One other aspect worth noting is Desplat’s choice of orchestration in certain cues: bass-heavy gongs and chimes in “The Watchman”, acoustic guitars in “Talley’s Theme”, the churning electric cello in “Talley’s Plan”, and so on. In “Mars’s Theme”, which acts as a motif for the leader of the young kidnappers, Desplat cleverly takes the playful recorder solo heard in “The Secret Place” and sends it down into the lowest reaches of the scale, and has his pianos play so low as to make them almost inaudible above the electronic drones.

In the film, Desplat’s score takes prominent center stage during many key moments, carrying the weight of the picture on its broad musical shoulders, enlivening the picture with its instrumental inventiveness and sheer dramatic oomph. Occasionally, Desplat’s score is slightly overpowering in terms of its level in the sound mix, overwhelming the moment with elegiac vocals that come across as just a little bit overly-manipulative, none of this takes away from the actual quality of the music itself. I firmly believe that, having now shown his credentials on a film which has genuine box office potential and is very different from his previous works, Desplat is destined to be one of the major composers in Hollywood over the next few years. Hostage comes highly recommended.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Child’s Spirit (1:51)
  • Hostage (2:52)
  • Canyon Inn (1:48)
  • The Watchman (2:47)
  • The Waterfall (1:52)
  • Crawl Space (1:31)
  • Talley’s Theme (2:57)
  • Drive (1:31)
  • Breaking In (4:28)
  • The House (2:19)
  • Tommy’s Theme (1:42)
  • The Secret Place (3:30)
  • House On Fire (5:30)
  • The Negotiation (4:02)
  • The Choice (1:39)
  • Talley’s Plan (1:42)
  • Screens & Shades (1:06)
  • FBI (1:29)
  • Mars’s Theme (2:41)
  • The Trade (1:54)
  • The Killer (1:58)
  • Captain Wooba (4:56)
  • Talley’s Family (2:48)
  • Child’s Spirit (Extended) (2:33)

Running Time: 61 minutes 26 seconds

Superb Records/Gut GUTCD-44 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat. Featured musical soloists Vincent Segal and Alexandre Desplat. Special vocal performances by Antonia Desplat. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by Gerard McCann. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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