Overwritten and maybe a little underdirected, The Negotiator is one of those films that scrambles to be significantly more brilliant than it is. It wants to be a clever detective story that takes place mostly in one room, but the twists and turns are too much and too convenient to believe in. Still, it’s an absorbing if not wholly compelling demonstration of director F. Gary Gray’s facility with great actors and stripped-down crime drama.
An four-way ensemble (including Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett) took Gray’s previous Set It Off to a higher level than the script alone would have suggested. The contrived scenario of The Negotiator gets a similar boost from Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Jackson is Danny Roman, a cop and expert hostage negotiator who’s framed on charges of stealing from the department and murdering his partner. When a desperate Roman decides to buy himself some time by taking hostages of his own in a downtown Chicago high-rise, he specifically requests that Chris Sabian (Spacey) be brought in to conduct negotiations.
Roman’s plan is to use the hostages to get Sabian to somehow help clear his name. The plan is complicated by the fact that the real killers are on the force, and have a vested interest in seeing Roman shot dead. Like Tommy Lee Jones’ famous U.S. marshal in The Fugitive, Sabian professes complete apathy toward Roman’s claims of innocence. His job is to keep the hostages alive. So Roman has to figure out a way to manipulate Sabian into helping him — not because Sabian cares about him, but because Sabian has a job to do.
Not a bad idea for a film. Jackson’s fiery demeanor keeps proceedings intense and Spacey’s calm keeps them mostly credible. Supporting turns from the late J.T. Walsh (Breakdown) and David Morse (Twelve Monkeys) are fine. As the wise-cracking con artist among the hostages, Paul Giamatti tries hard with some ostensible comic relief that’s no funnier than a typical sitcom. While Gray’s milking the movie for tension, he overreaches — I found the scene where Jackson strikes a pose in a blown-out window of the skyscraper and basically dares the cops in a nearby helicopter to shoot him on national TV to be a little much. Surely somebody would shoot to wound, if not to kill.
What’s more, the unfolding mystery relies a little too much on the convenient deployment of generic plot devices to suit my taste in clever detective stories. This is one of those movies where the bad guys are dumb enough to leave incriminating data on their office computers in elaborate multimedia files, and where everybody seems to think that if you shoot a computer once through the case, all the data on its hard drive is automatically lost forever. Worse, the movie twice tries to mislead the audience, but smart viewers won’t be fooled and will just be impatient with the clubfooted attempts at trickery. Still, the movie’s psychology makes for good drama, with the two leads thankfully spending more time sussing each other out than ruminating on the snarled crime story. A mixed bag for audiences seeking real performances and an original story at this late-summer date, The Negotiator is actually pretty smart — when it’s not really stupid.
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Cinematography by Russell Carpenter
Edited by Christian A. Wagner
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1