MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Samuel L. Jackson (Danny Roman), Kevin Spacey (Chris Sabian), David Morse (Commander Adam Beck), Ron Rifkin (Commander Frost), John Spencer (Chief Al Travis), J.T. Walsh (Terence Niebaum), Regina Taylor (Karen Roman), Siobhan Fallon (Maggie), Paul Giamatti (Rudy)
"The Negotiator" is about men who talk for a living, and director F. Gary Gray could not have picked two better talkers than Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Their styles and rhythms are completely contradictory, and yet they compliment each other perfectly within the context of this film.
Jackson's voice is highly inflected, constantly rising in peaks and valleys, sometimes so shrill in its intensity that it's painful. Remember how his delivery of one line--"I don't remember asking you a goddamned thing"--changed the entire tone of the apartment scene in "Pulp Fiction" (1994) from humorous to violent?
As a perfect foil to Jackson is to Spacey's slow, deliberately paced voice. Whenever Spacey speaks, you get the idea that he's thought long and hard about what he's saying, which gives his words a different but equal weight and intensity from Jackson's emotion-packed speech. Remember Spacey as the serial killer at the end of "Seven" (1995), probing and prodding Brad Pitt's character with insane statements spoken in a perfectly clear, perfectly concise tone of voice that made him that much more sinister?
Both Jackson and Spacey are perfectly dead-on as their characters in "The Negotiator," and just listening to them speak their lines is worth the price of admission. You won't find two better actors anywhere.
Jackson stars as Danny Roman, one of Chicago's finest and most skilled police negotiators, who is framed for embezzling money from the department and murdering his partner. Because Danny understands that he has been framed by other cops, and the evidence is so heavily weighted against him that he doesn't stand a chance in a court of law, he does the only thing he can think of: he takes hostages.
Danny barricades himself in a high-rise building in downtown Chicago, refusing to come out until his innocence can be proven. For hostages, he takes Terence Niebaum (the late J.T. Walsh), an Internal Affairs officer who Danny suspects as being in on the conspiracy against him; Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin), Danny's boss and friend who nonetheless isn't sure whether or not to believe him; Maggie (Siobhan Fallon), Niebaum's tough-talking assistant; and Rudy (Paul Giamatti), a weasely ex-con-turned-police-informant who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After taking the hostages, Danny demands the police bring in a negotiator from the west side of town, a man named Chris Sabian (Spacey). Nobody knows why Danny is so determined to have Sabian conduct the negotiations, but as the movie unfolds, his motives become clear. There is reason behind all the insanity, even though a great deal of it hinges on chance, luck, and some good old-fashioned movie coincidences.
Despite its somewhat formulaic set-up, "The Negotiator" is sharp. Nobody would mistake any of it for reality, but that's where the fun lies. Although there are several shoot-em-up scenes, the majority of the movie is cerebral. The enjoyment is in watching Danny and Chris, two highly skilled negotiators who know all the ends and outs of the trade, trying to one-up each other. But, at the same time, you can detect a bond being formed between them, as Chris becomes more and more convinced that Danny is innocent, and not just another gun-wielding psychopath.
There are numerous obstacles for Danny to overcome, including the fact that the conspirators who framed him are most likely a part of the very police squad that is trying to bring him in. Therefore, they have a strong motive to "accidentally" kill him in the negotiation process. These kinds of situations require a high degree of trust, but almost no one is trustworthy. Any number of the cops--including those of the highest rank and members of Internal Affairs--could be the ones who set Danny up.
F. Gary Gray, the 28-year-old director whose previous credits include "Friday" (1995) and "Set It Off" (1996), started out directing music videos before moving to the big screen. Some of that mentality remains in the film's editing, pacing, and shot composition, but what stands out most is his skill as a storyteller. Along with cinematographer Russell Carpenter ("Titanic"), he weaves a fascinating tale with absorbing characters who overcome incredible odds. The script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox creates constant mounting tension by always questioning everything--who's innocent, who's not, who's involved in the conspiracy, who's doing the right thing, what is the right thing, etc.
Gray makes great use of the classic Hitchockian set-up of placing an innocent man in extraordinary circumstances, and letting that character's sheer willpower defeat the forces aligned against him. The movie works on a number of levels, as both an action film and as an intense drama. It's so rare that a movie is this visually exhilarating while also provoking thought and getting the viewer actively involved in the story, instead of just sitting back and passively absorbing it. This is a summer flick that is not to be missed.
©1998 James Kendrick