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Movie Review: The Negotiator -- Samuel L. Jackson should make a more complete offer

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by F. Gary Gray

Written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox

With Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, J.T. Walsh, Siobhan Fallon, Paul Giamatti

In the summer of 1993, The Fugitive opened, and proved to be not only a tense thriller and a cleverly-plotted mystery, but also provided enough material for several actors to display their talent to the fullest, which made it a pleasure to watch. The thrill of the chase and the viewers' curiosity was what held their attention while the events of the film were playing out on the screen. What is remembered now is a precious moment of a man-to-man confrontation between Dr. Kimble and U.S. Marshall Sam Gerard.

The Negotiator operates - or at least, aspires to operate - in the same mode as The Fugitive. Not only it is similarly set in Chicago, but its main selling point is a high powered confrontation between two excellent actors. Even the title is similar.

The story is that of Chicago hostage negotiator Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson). Praised for his verve and skill in negotiating his way through tense standoffs, this time he's on the opposite side of the law. Seemingly framed for the murder of his partner, Danny proceeds to the twentieth floor of Chicago police headquarters where he takes hostages and demands that his name is cleared. Since he refuses to trust anyone from his own precinct, an outsider is called in to help, Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), also a star hostage negotiator. And the conflict is on.

Rather, the conflict is finally on. The plot setup takes more than half an hour, and a good deal of momentum is sapped from the story by the time Sabian finally arrives on the scene. The Negotiator runs noticeably more than two hours, and some judicious pruning of the first act would have helped it quite a bit. It seems that the filmmakers themselves didn't realize where the heart of their movie was, since they pile up suspect upon suspect, red herring after red herring, and a ridiculous mess of plot details that detract from the virtuoso negotiations between Roman and his former colleagues, and later between Roman and Sabian.

Those scenes work much better than others I have witnessed (L.A. Confidential being the last good example). There is nothing as exciting as seeing an excellent actor sinking his teeth into a meaty role, and both Jackson and Spacey are superb here. Jackson infuses his tough negotiator with a curious measure of personal vulnerability which has a simmering potential to turn into dangerous instability. Spacey plays his everyman with simple dignity that sometimes seamlessly transforms into unstoppable hauteur.

These two excellent characters are ably abetted by a fine supporting cast: the late J.T. Walsh as an ominous internal affairs officer, John Spencer as the conscience-torn police captain, and especially Siobhan Fallon and Paul Giamatti as a pair of hostages. The last two provide not only a human reference point, but also some comic relief (which is perhaps the best integrated comic relief I've ever seen).

When a film gets mired either in superfluous action sequences or when it spends a lot of time spinning its wheels in the tracks of a tired mystery subplot, it feels worse than it probably is. Most of action and mystery is very capably executed, and the idea of a Die Hard-like film (where the audience's sympathies are on the other side of the barricade) is appealing. However, with its last half an hour nearly disintegrating into a mishmash of obtuse plot development, The Negotiator still feels like a disappointment. The heart of this movie is in exploring negotiations - person to person confrontations. This movie would have worked better if it decided to stick with its main theme.