|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 15 December 1998|
When two can-do-no-wrong actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, both of whom specialize in complex, manipulative characters, star together in something called 'The Negotiator,' it seems reasonable to expect that we're going to see something with intricate plotting, smart dialogue and some major plot surprises. What we get instead is a decent but largely routine action thriller that is better than it should be thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned leads and a strong supporting cast.
Jackson's Danny Roman is an ace hostage negotiator for the Chicago Police Department who is riding high on a new marriage, media hero status (after saving a child from a deranged parent) and the admiration of his peers. Then Danny is framed for murder and embezzlement. Finding that none of his colleagues will stand up for him, Danny is ironically driven to take hostages himself. He demands to speak with a negotiator from outside his department, the canny Chris Sabian (Spacey).
The script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox isn't precisely wrong-headed, but it doesn't live up to the potential of its premise. Jackson and Spacey are never less than a pleasure to watch, but the best instance of professional negotiator one-upsmanship occurs in Chapter 14 between Danny and a subordinate before Sabian is even introduced. Worse, two ostensible plot twists can be seen coming a long way off, though the filmmakers do a good job of making us guess who among Danny's adversaries is actually guilty and who just wants to subdue him in the line of duty.
Director F. Gary Gray ('Set It Off,' 'Friday') stages some zesty action sequences, which are plentiful and well-executed, playing respectably on both the screen and the sound system. Assaults on Danny's makeshift stronghold in a Federal building make good use of (literally) explosive light against the night's darkness and the growl of wall-smashing machinery is faithfully reproduced.
For those who want to know more about exactly how the look of 'The Negotiator' was achieved, a supplemental documentary in the DVD's special features deals almost entirely with production design, with comments from director Gray, production designer Holger Gross, producer David Nicksay and executive producer David Hoberman. More engaging is 'The 11th Hour,' which consists of an interview with personable LAPD SWAT negotiator Todd Rheingold.
Ultimately, 'The Negotiator' is lively and watchable, but it would have been a lot more memorable if the script and speeches had measured up to the caliber of its stars.