Negotiator, The: Gray’s Thriller, Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey

The teaming of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, two of the most brilliant actors of their generation, in perfectly fitting roles that call for battle of wits and wills, proves to be a shrewd piece of casting–and best element–of The Negotiator.

Inspired by an actual case in the St. Louis police, this action thriller gives the familiar premise of a falsely accused man, forced to violate the law in order to prove his innocence, enough twists and turns to make it into an engaging experience, though pic is slightly impaired by an overlong, overbaked production. Warners should expect mid-range numbers for an entertaining thriller whose relevant issues are likely to appeal to audiences tired of mindless summer fare, though pic may suffer from too much competition in the crowded marketplace.

Working with a high-caliber cast and a bigger budget than in his New Line movies (Friday, Set It Off), helmer F. Gary Gray demonstrates that he can handle a large-scale production with numerous action set pieces. Yet, as he has shown in his earlier work, Gray is particularly adept at dealing with intense interactions between a small number of characters. It’s indicative of the current trends in Hollywood moviemaking that what’s at heart a taut suspense thriller gets an overblown production with explosions and action sequences that diffuse and sometimes diminish the central dramatic core. In other words, the aggressive combo of action and thriller doesn’t always represent a smooth negotiation.

Co-scripted by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, yarn boasts an extremely potent beginning, in which Danny Roman (Jackson), top hostage negotiator of the Chicago police, uses his notoriously sharp tongue–and literally risks his life–in saving the life of a little girl held hostage at a gun point by her demented father demanding his wife’s return.

Praised by his supervisors and celebrated by the news media for his heroic rescue, Roman goes back to “routine” cop duties with his longtime partner. Karen (Regina Taylor), Roman’s new, loving wife, demands that he “differentiate between crazy and stupid,” and he sheepishly promises to come home every night for dinner. However, just when Roman vows “no more crazy,” his partner is assassinated, minutes before he was supposed to meet Roman to disclose vital info about embezzlement within their department. Caught in the scene of the crime, Roman becomes prime suspect and is asked by his superior, Chief Al Travis (John Spencer), to relinquish his badge and gun, a humiliation he finds hard to bear.

Since the audience knows that Roman has been framed, and since the intriguing set-up occurs in the first reel, it becomes a challenge for the filmmakers to come up with a variegated scheme that will engage the attention for the next two hours. With a few exceptions of ungainly digressions, the challenge is met.

With charges of murder and embezzlement, and with his entire world destroyed, Roman resorts to a desperate gambit. He climbs up to the 20th floor of the Chicago Internal Affairs Division headquarters and, after a direct confrontation with his nemesis, inspector Niebaum (J. T. Walsh), he takes him, two assistants and Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin) as hostages. For a while, the situation recalls the desperation and pathos that prevailed in Dog Day Afternoon, but scripters quickly send the plot in a different direction.

Experiencing as role-reversal that now finds him a hostage-taker, Roman needs a sober man who will listen to his plea. Since no one can be trusted, he demands that Chris Sabian (Spacey), a respected negotiator from another precinct, be brought to mediate. It takes 40 minutes for Sabian’s grand entrance, but his presence elevates the movie, charging it with the kind of electricity that only a dazzling actor like Spacey can bring. The film abounds with ironies: When first seen, Sabian fails as a domestic negotiator, incapable of reaching a truce between his wife and his daughter.

Pic’s midsection, in which the cool, cerebral Sabian squares off with Roman, his formidable opponent who’s on the edge, is the most interesting. Though Roman and Sabian have briefly met, they mostly know each other by reputation. Employing various strategies, such as bluffs that don’t always work, the two men compete for control. it’s to the writers’ credit that they fracture the balance often enough for the viewers to be in a state of suspense. As the cover-up gets deeper and deeper into the upper echelons, it becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before the two negotiators join forces. But, again, since the outcome is predictable, the real tension resides in disclosing the multi-layered conspiracy of greed and corruption.

Like Face/Off, which cashed in on the divergent style of its stars, The Negotiator shrewdly exploits not only the opposing roles of Jackson and Spacey, but also their different performance styles. The two thesps rise to the occasion and in a series of richly dense confrontations manage to excel without outshining each other. Embodying the wrongly accused Everyman whose life is thrown out of control, Jackson brings the requisite rage and intensity, but also humanity to a difficult part. As far as delivering cynical lines are concerned, Spacey has no rival, using his formidable voice and distinctive rhythm to punctuate his speeches.

The mostly male supporting ensemble is superb, with David Morse as the tough SWAT Commander, Ron Rifkin as Roman’s friend and colleague, J.T. Walsh as the ambiguous IDA investigator, John Travis as the calmly rational Chief Al Davis, and Siobahn Fallon and Paul Giamatti as the two civilian assistants, all hitting their marks.

Ace lenser Russell Carpenter and the rest of the technical crew give the film the sheen of a polished production, with impressive overhead shots of Chicago and a vibrantly dynamic view of a big city beset by problems. However, in an effort to qualify the thriller a big, legit actioner that will please the genre’s aficionados, several sequences are blown out of proportion, distracting the attention from the intimate human drama that’s far more riveting than the shoot-outs. A trimming of 15 minutes, particularly in the second half, will also benefit the movie.

The Negotiator is dedicated to J. T. Walsh who died earlier this year.