There's nothing like a cerebral touch when the bullets are flying.
Snap, crackle, and pop. "The Negotiator" is a fast, densely worded screenplay, and someone had the good sense to hand it to Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, who love nothing better than playing with words. As two expert hostage negotiators, this pair manages to hold the audience throughout the long course of an otherwise ordinary hostage drama. The helicopters, the war-room mentality, the resentment between the Chicago cops and the FBI are all familiar stuff. But nothing is ever familiar or predictable about Jackson and Spacey. Shouting, threatening, or pontificating--either of them can make a cliché sound new.
As the film opens, Chicago cop Danny Roman (Mr. Jackson) subdues a hostage taker in the crackling style that has made him a departmental hero. In short order we learn he is also a dreamy-eyed newlywed, a loyal friend, and an honest man. And then his world crumbles. Danny is framed for murder and embezzlement by crooked cops within the Department of Internal Affairs.
Faced with imminent arrest, he breaks free, races to the 20th floor of the police building, and takes his own set of hostages, including the Head of Internal Affairs. Now we have good cops and bad cops, without any idea of which is which, either in the hostage room upstairs or the command post below.
Danny demands to talk to Chris Sabian (Mr. Spacey), a crack negotiator he knows only by reputation. With Sabian's arrival, Danny has at least one disinterested stranger who's looking for the truth. While our hero tries to solve the crime via computer, we begin to understand that the crooked cops will have to storm the room to destroy the evidence. It's a strong suspense theme that holds up well.
On the downside, the movie is too long, as most are these days. And attempts to humanize Danny and Sabian by showing them as domesticated husbands fizzle in the high tension atmosphere. These men are not easily diverted by family pleasures.
The crowded cast of cops supports the principals with fine performances, but leaves the spotlight to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Spacey, who are indeed in a league of their own on the field of verbal abuse. Spacey's Sabian is a steel-cool operator who trusts no one and harbors the special Spacey touch: the certainty that a great deal more is going on in his intelligent mind than we mere watchers can fathom. Samuel L. Jackson, relishing the chance to rant and rage, to threaten and accuse, also invests Danny with the wounds of betrayal. He makes Danny a humane man.
Whenever stock violence erupts-bullets, smoke, SWATS-the film becomes standard fare. But when Danny rages and Sabian connives, especially one against the other, the verbal battle lifts the film above the shootouts and holds the audience tightly. Filmmakers devoted to special effects and firepower might remember this: There's nothing like a cerebral touch when the bullets are flying.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 496
Studio : Warner Bros.
Rating : R
Running time : 2h18m
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