Ignacio (Jack Black) has never been particularly adept at anything but he has great passion for the things that matter to him: cooking and wrestling. Growing up in a Mexican orphanage ‘Nacho’ always dreamt of becoming a “luchador”--the term for a Mexican wrestler--and he even had the paunch to boot but alas it was highly forbidden by the religious orphanage. Now grown up he works as a chef for the only home he has ever known. He’s subjected to constant criticism at the hands of monks for the slop he calls food but claims he isn’t paid enough for quality ingredients. So as he sees it his only solution for more money is to pursue the forbidden fruit of becoming a luchador. He picks up a rail-thin peasant (Hector Jimenez) along the way to form a tag-team duo. Together they’re so horrendous that fans line up just for a laugh. But that makes them underdogs and we all know the fate of underdog characters in movies.
Jack Black maybe the best comedic actor of his extraordinarily gifted generation is a sight to behold. In Nacho Libre his mere pose which invariably sees him showcasing his belly as if a trophy is enough to arouse laughter. But once he opens his mouth forget it! Nacho’s broken English-and-Spanish dialect is tailor-made for Black as is his character’s penchant to break into Tenacious D-style song to profess his love for a nun (Ana de la Reguera). The problems with Black are due to his improper utilization at times (see “direction”) not his performance which is about as flawlessly inane as verbal/physical comedy gets. He taps into mania with an ease that hasn’t been seen since John Belushi. As Nacho’s equally hopeless sidekick Esqueleto Jimenez garners his fair share of laughs thanks mostly to the wrestling scenes. But his high-pitched yelps forced ineptitude and blank expressions grow old quickly.
Director Jared Hess should’ve quit after his first feature Napoleon Dynamite. Only because expectations for his follow-up in this case Libre simply cannot be met. That said he doesn’t only make sophomore mistakes; there is promise and talent on full display here. For instance Hess again exhibits an ability to find and/or create the most outlandish characters from the star all the way down to the unknown Mexican extras. But even at just over 90 minutes long the film drags and seems like a hilarious skit stretched way too far. That’s because although conceptually hilarious the story (which Hess co-wrote with wife Jerusha and veteran Mike White) is as thin as Nacho is portly. And as Hess has learned the hard way with bigger budgets come bigger constraints such as not-so-subtle humor (fart jokes pratfalls) to appease the teen masses. Hess’ fatal flaw however despite what will again be an underrated offbeat effort was to not stray further from his trademark movie thus keeping the animal that is Black caged--albeit in a large cage.
When ordered to fire a long-time janitor named Stavi (Luis Avalos) Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) softens the blow by hiring him to mow the lawn at his apartment complex. Steve didn't provide him with health insurance so Stavi naturally loses a few fingers in a mowing accident and now it'll cost thousands to save the digits. What's a guy to do? Why of course fix the Special Olympics—a suggestion of Steve's degenerate uncle Gary (Brian Cox) who's also in the financial dumps. Former track star Steve reluctantly goes along with the scam and competes in the Special Olympics. His competitors are quick to pick up on his ruse but they decide to help him after Steve explains his motive. He must also try not to disappoint Lynn (Katherine Heigl) the beautiful volunteer who doesn't know of his real identity. What's a guy to do? Take the high road of course. Certainly Knoxville—of Jackass infamy and debauchery—would have no moral trepidation about headlining offensive exploitative crap like The Ringer but stardom beckons him if he only he stops aiming so damn low! His performance here was probably not as easy as it'd seem but it's reasonable to think that Jackass stunts involving a bottle of absinthe and some paper cuts to the cornea quickly eliminated any butterflies. What Knoxville has in spades is that rare charisma to prevent him from ever looking uncool. Then there's Cox the latest revered journeyman to sell his soul on the cheap for a role completely beneath him. Mostly disabled actors round out the cast uttering any and all funny lines but there's something fundamentally wrong when the audience erupts in laughter before the lines are even delivered. Though the Farrelly brothers—directors of There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber--only acted as executive producers of The Ringer their lowbrow stamp is smeared all over. Directing chores were handed over to Barry Blaustein prolific writer of comedies like Coming to America making his feature directorial debut. The Ringer delivers on its promise of frat-dude humor and Blaustein certainly knows how to make his leading man shine—but it does so in cheap sophomoric ways.
Talk about pressure. When LAPD hostage negotiator extraordinaire Jeff Talley (Bruce Willis) has a bad day lives are lost--and it is after one particularly bad day that Talley decides he's had it with the job. Plagued by guilt he relocates his family and becomes the police chief of a sleepy northern California town. But it's about to be woken up. Corrupt accountant Walter Smith (Kevin Pollak) and his two kids--teenager Jennifer (Michelle Horn) and grade schooler Tommy (Jimmy Bennett)--are taken hostage in their house after a carjacking attempt by a trio of young punks goes awry. Talley is forced to step in once again as the hostage negotiator. Why you may ask since he is now just a lowly police man? Because it turns out Talley's family is being held captive by Walter's superiors who need to get something very important out of the house. They demand the seasoned Talley take control of the situation before things get really ugly. And they do get ugly.
I'm sure Willis would say he agreed to play yet another reluctant hero whose family is in danger because the concept was intriguing. But we all know he probably made Hostage for the money. However Willis is still an appealing actor and a tried and true action star. He infuses Talley with his usual quiet strong demeanor which inevitably turns tortured--and then revengeful--when things go badly. Another standout includes Ben Foster (HBO's Six Feet Under) who does a nice job as Mars the most demented and brutal of the three kidnappers. Not only is the cold-blooded Mars on the edge but he's also some kind of a super delinquent who's able to knock out police cars professional hit men and the like with ease. Scary what they teach kids these days. Willis' daughter Rumer also gets some screen time as Talley's sullen daughter--but since she doesn't get to say much the jury is still out on whether she's inherited any of her parents' acting skills.
Hostage unfortunately takes a good idea and ruins it. To his credit French director Florent Siri who is best known in his native country for crime thrillers seems to understand about building the tension. The Smiths' isolated fortress situated in the hills is a perfect place to piece together the action-thriller ingredients: the shell-shocked cop trying not to repeat his past mistakes; the novice in-over-their-heads kidnappers lead by a trigger-happy psychopath; the resourceful and brave young hostages on the inside; and the menacingly ominous outside influences. But Hostage ends up taking these well-placed elements and running them into the ground. The film starts to drag in its logistical inconsistencies. Why don't the corporate baddies just come in and blow everyone away from the beginning? They obviously have the means to do so. But no. We are instead subjected to Willis running around trying to outsmart everyone natch while having heartbreaking conversations with the precocious little boy inside the house. When things finally do come to a head we are left with a severely over-the-top overtly bloody climax.