Grade: C

After a severe career decline Bruce Willis returns to the theme of his greatest triumphs, the “Die Hard” movies, though on a considerably smaller scale, as a crack L.A. police negotiator turned small-town cop who’s compelled to resume his old specialty when a home in his bailiwick is invaded by a trio of ne’er-do-wells who take a father and his two kids captive and want to barter them for an “out of jail free” card. Obviously this isn’t the freshest of plots, but had “Hostage” stuck to it and played it without frills, it might have been a tidy little suspenser. Unfortunately, scripter Doug Richardson, working from a novel by Robert Crais, overloads the narrative with layer after layer of subplot and constructs a finale so extravagantly over-the-top that it not only strains but shatters credulity. By piling coincidence upon coincidence, the picture, though quite slickly made, collapses under the weight of its accumulated cliches and improbabilities.

That’s really a shame, because the movie starts off well, with a striking title sequence that’s like a graphic-novel variant of Saul Bass’ memorable work on “North by Northwest,” accompanied by an equally vivid overture by Alexandre Desplat, who’s quickly becoming one of the most notable film composers of the day. (It’s absurd that his score for “Birth” wasn’t recognized by the Academy last year–it was the one outstanding element in that misbegotten movie.) In the prologue–showing how Jeff Talley (Willis) bungles a negotiation in Los Angeles, leaving a mother and her young son dead–director Florent Siri also demonstrates (with help from ace editors Olivier Gajan and Richard J.P. Byard and cinematographer Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci) real flair in building tension, too. Things continue to work nicely in the succeeding sequences setting the stage in peaceful, rustic Bristo Camino upstate, where the burned-out Talley takes the job of police chief, much to the dismay of daughter Amanda (Rumer Willis), who’s upset at leaving the metropolis, and his estranged wife Jane (Serena Scott Thomas). Though the character’s domestic problems are only perfunctorily sketched, the atmosphere of the minor-league P.D. is well drawn, and so is the string of events that lead petty thieves Dennis (Jonathan Tucker) and Mars (Ben Foster), accompanied by the former’s innocent younger brother Kevin (Marshall Allman), to raid the well-fortified mountainside mansion occupied by slick businessman Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his two kids, Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and Tommy (Jimmy Bennett). An alarm brings one of Talley’s officers to the place, only to be shot by Mars–which sets off the hostage crisis. In the house, Smith has been knocked unconscious and Jennifer tied up, while Jimmy escapes into the house’s elaborate ventilation system and even contacts Talley by phone; meanwhile Kevin tries to pressure Dennis to give up, while the grim Mars shows himself more and more to be a dangerous psychotic.

So far, so good. But it’s at this point that “Hostage” begins to fall apart from plot complication. Talley hands off the negotiating duties to county cops, but he’s forced to reclaim them when a mysterious masked man takes his wife and daughter hostage, threatening to kill them unless the chief retrieves a DVD of “Heaven Can Wait” from the Smith home. Obviously it’s not the old film that the hoods are so interested in, and the plot twist leads to revelations about the unconscious Walter’s unsavory business dealings. The danger to his family requires the chief to take the rescue operation back into his own hands–not without resistance from the county officers–and compels him to make choices that, to those who don’t know his plight, seem increasingly bizarre and insupportable. Meanwhile, in the house Mars is turning into a total wacko, deluding himself into the belief that Jennifer is attracted to him and concluding that Dennis and Kevin, who have found a huge stash of cash in the place, can’t be trusted. A crescendo of melodramatic excess ensues, which reaches the pinnacle of visual absurdity when Talley strides through the front gate, automatic weapon in hand, as a blinding explosion breaks out behind him, and Mars, now morphed into something akin to the invulnerable boogeymen of contemporary horror flicks, keeps recovering from fatal wounds and flings about Molotov cocktails as though they were frisbees; it all resembles one of the most ludicrous moments from a “Rambo” flick. The narrative embellishments grow increasingly preposterous until the movie literally blows up (along with the poor Smith house) like a cinematic firecracker display that’s ripped away from of its moorings and careened wildly into the night sky.

The cast is carried to similar levels of ridiculousness as the story goes berserk. Willis, who’s actually pretty good at first, turns into self-parody by the close, and the grimly glaring Foster has lurched into numbingly over-the-top hilarity by the big finale. (He puts Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance to shame.) Pollak comes off better by underplaying, although one always sympathizes with an actor who has to spend a large portion of a film knocked out, tied up, or comatose, while Tucker and Allman–even if they verge on hysteria too often–manage to earn a measure of audience empathy. And though Horn never gets much past a standard-issue (and badly-costumed) damsel-in-distress, Bennett makes the precocious Jimmy an engagingly self-reliant tyke. The look of the picture, moreover, remains top-drawer even as the script deteriorates, and Siri keeps things moving along efficiently, even if speed alone can’t cloak the rampaging absurdities. But even he stumbles in the tepid final episode in which Talley and Smith join forces in a good cause.

That concluding sequence points up the fact that in essence “Hostage” can be thought of as a movie about family–both the Talley and the Smith clans, and even desperate brothers Dennis and Kevin–during a time of tension and distress. But as it becomes increasingly wild-eyed and implausible, it comes to remind one of the crazy uncle you’re tempted to inch away from at family gatherings. By the end you may even wish you’d never been introduced.