Saturday, January 3, 2009


Summer movies usually lack the sophistication and subtlety of "Set It Off" director F. Gary Gray's "The Negotiator," (*** out of ****)a taut, suspenseful, white-knuckled police thriller that pits "Pulp Fiction's" Samuel L. Jackson against "The Usual Suspects'" Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. Incredibly, the brain and brawn in Kevin Fox & James DeMonaco's screenplay is evenly matched so that "The Negotiator" scores solidly as an above-average, good cops versus bad cops account of law and order. Nobody in "The Negotiator" does anything that the average human couldn't survive without the services of an agile stunt double. You won't find the kind of outlandish heroics here that occur ostentatiously enough in the "Die Hard" franchise. Indeed, "The Negotiator" stands out as one of the summer's more down-to-earth entries. Actual characters find themselves in plausible situations where they must compete in a deadly contest of wits and wills. Dialogue does matter in "The Negotiator." Nevertheless, despite its onslaught of pyrotechnics at appropriate intervals, "The Negotiator" manages to thrill and entertain without venturing too far out on a limb.

"The Negotiator" focuses on police corruption among a tightly knit coterie of Chicago's finest. Really helpful is the fact that "The Negotiator" originated from an authentic case involving the St. Louis Police. Co-scripted by Fox and DeMonaco (who wrote the Robin Williams fantasy "Jack"), this tense actioneer deals with a falsely accused cop. "The Negotiator" belongs to the police genre where the hero-in-blue must take the law into his own hands to prove his innocence. While "The Negotiator" staunchly adheres to the crime formula, with its shoot-outs constantly interrupting the plot to enliven it, the film boasts enough star charisma and surprises to boost it far above the standard-issue police thriller. Moreover, "The Negotiator" features a line-up of well-versed thespians.

Ace hostage negotiator Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) wakes up one morning and finds himself charged not only with embezzling police pension funds but also for murdering Nathan Roenick (an unbilled Paul Guilfoyle of "Primary Colors") his long-time partner. The filmmakers deserve praise for getting the story off to an early start. Gray and his scenarists provide some informative dialogue about police negotiations and their methods. The lecture on eye language and lying is particularly illuminating and guaranteed to bolster any conversation. Stunned by these accusations, Danny hands in his shield at the request of Chief Al Travis (John Spencer of "The Rock"), his suspicious superior. Once again, Spencer plays a character with villainous shades. Danny's partner's widow curses Danny to his face and Danny's attorney advises his client to cut a deal.

In short, everybody but Danny's newly wed wife, Karen (Regina Taylor of "Lean on Me"), believes that he is guilty as sin. Investigators at Danny's house produce bank accounts of funds invested in off-shore bank accounts. Things look terrible for our hero, but Danny is innocent and we know it. Clearly, someone is trying to frame him. The dramatic tension that fuels "The Negotiator" concerns who is guilty and can Danny survive long enough to prove it. At this point, predictability sets into the Fox & DeMonaco screenplay. All the usual police thriller elements remain intact. No sooner has the heroic cop's pal confided in him about a police conspiracy than he catches lead, and Roman finds himself isolated. Another element of the police movie genre is how a saint like Danny Roman can fall so swiftly.

Refusing to cave in to a neat frame-up, Danny demands to face his accuser, portly Internal Affairs investigator Terrence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh of "Tequila Sunrise"). When a feisty Niebaum repudiates Danny, the outraged Roman takes him hostage, along with Niebaum's secretary, Maggie (Siobahn Fallon of "Krippendorf's Tribe"), and a pasty-faced informer, Rudy (Paul Giamatti of "Saving Private Ryan"), on the 20th floor of the Chicago Internal Affairs Division Headquarters. Chaos erupts. Chief Travis (John Spencer), Commander Adam Beck (David Morse of "The Rock") and Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin of "L.A. Confidential") besiege the building with an army of trigger-happy SWAT cops. David Morse joins the gallery of villains in "The Negotiator." As Commander Beck, Morse joins the gallery of villains in "The Negotiator." He makes quite an impression with is steely eyes and stern manner. Since he has figured out that one or more of his buddies have set him up, Danny demands an outside negotiator.

Enter Lieutenant Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another of Chicago's crack hostage negotiators. Sabian boasts that he has never killed a hostage taker in all his years on the force. Before Sabian confronts Roman, the filmmakers have a little fun with his character. Apparently, Sabian's insubordinate daughter said something that hurt her mother's feelings, and Chris has to talk her out of the bedroom when he receives his call from Travis. The irony (that Sabian cannot get his own wife and daughter to mind him) enriches the storyline when Chris finds himself caught up between Danny and an army of cops that prefer to dispense with questions and shoot first.

At two hours and twenty minutes, "The Negotiator" is a quarter hour too long. Gray could have trimmed twenty minutes without endangering the suspense. Happily, "The Negotiator" gets off to a fast start. The idea of bottling them up in a skyscraper while Danny tries to break Niebaum's resolve qualifies as good stuff. Sadly, the filmmakers come up short. Often the plot stalls out. A big problem with "The Negotiator" is that the filmmakers keep us in the dark about who the villains are. Gray doesn't give up many clues about who they are and deploys some choice red herrings. Basically, we never get to know Danny Roman's friends so that we can guess the identity of his betrayers. Indeed, "The Negotiator" will make you furrow your brows with its plethora of detail. Burn the story about "Shane" into your brain cells if you really want to appreciate the plot. Unquestionably, with "The Negotiator," Gray establishes himself as a helmer of big-action melodramas.

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