Forgotten Films

Hostile Hostages (1994)

An acerbic answer to the cutesy comedies that tend to be released during the holiday season, this black comedy stars Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis as a couple of the edge of divorce taken hostage by Denis Leary, a cat burgler on the run after a botched job looking for a place to hide out. Obviously he's picked the wrong couple and the wrong house as he must endure their bickering and later their extended family who descend on the house for the annual Christmas Eve meal. He pretends to be the couple's therapist and in between threats of violence helps them to overcome their marital problems. What I love about the film is that it takes what should be a dreadful premise but presents it with so much wit and warmth and intelligence.

All too often these high concept suburban comedies are ruined by constantly resorting to slapstick or an episodic structure that distances the audience from really caring about the characters (I'm thinking of Meet The Parents, the late films of Steve Martin). This instead is perfectly structured; this isn't simply about the bickering couple and their captor - their story is intercut with the police search, the extended family and Spacey's pushy mother stopping off at a diner before they arrive and the black mail plans of their errant son at military college - but these scenes also underscore that central relationship explaining the reasons for the marital problems far more than some untidy exposition with their arguments.

Also, unlike those films, the script actually plays to the strength of the actors involved, and in a kind of old Hollywood style allows them to create or recreate performances familiar from elsewhere. This is the same Kevin Spacey on-screen persona that would work out the rest of the nineties and in fact American Beauty's Lester Burnham is all but a replay of the man that appears here, albeit without the potential redemption at the conclusion. He gets to do those big speeches he's known for and has a particularly great solution involving a fire poker and a Christmas tree when someone has the audacity to interrupt him. 'Excuse me - I believe I still have the floor'.

To a degree, Judy Davis is rerunning the highly strung character so familiar from her work with Woody Allen and Denis Leary is the motor mouth, the wit, but and this is important because it makes the film, he's far more three dimensional than these characters tend to be, seeing in the couple's son the boy that he once was, telling him not to run out on them because if he goes, he'll never stop running. That kind of attention to characterization is repeated throughout the film - watch for the moment when the police chief points out exactly why his offers are so green or the approbation of a pissed Santa.

The film was released in the US as The Ref and it's now available in the UK on dvd under that title. But my old ex-rental VHS uses the above name and it's miles more appropriate. Plus it's fun to look at the back of the box and see how that cast was perceived on the release of the tape. This is Denis Leary - "Demolition Man", Judy Davis - "Naked Lunch" and, get this, Kevin Spacey - "Consenting Adults". Thanks god for "The Usual Suspects". I'll end this with a quote from an interview with Demme on the subject of why this film wasn't a success:
" It didn't take in the theater, and I'll tell you why: Because it came out in March! It's a movie that takes place on Christmas Eve, and it's released in the Spring-time! The last thing you want to do is go see a movie with snow in it in March, because you've just been living through hell in the last three months. It should have been released at Christmas, but everyone said, "It'll get buried by the Christmas competition." I always thought it would be a great anti-Christmas movie. My fantasy is that in ten years, when they're still watching It's A Wonderful fucking Life, people will go, "Let's watch that really nasty christmas movie, The Ref.""
Most of these films are only forgotten because some lunkhead at studio didn't really know what they had or how to market it ...

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