Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"The Negotiator" (1998)

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey and Paul Giamatti
Written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox
Directed by F. Gary Gray

Samuel L. Jackson stars as Hostage Barricade Team (HBT) Negotiator Danny Roman.  One night after a difficult negotiation, his partner Nate (Paul Guilfoyle) reveals that he's learned of an informant who knows who has been stealing money from the police disability fund.  But when Danny goes to meet Nate to discuss the informant, he finds Nate dead.  Soon enough, the signs start to point to Danny as Nate's killer, and Danny suspects he's being framed. 

Frustrated that no one will listen, and suspecting that some of the men in his unit can't be trusted, he goes to the Internal Affairs office and takes hostage the IAD detective he believes is involved in the frame-job, Niebaum (JT Walsh), along with Niebaum's assistant, Maggie (Siobhan Fallon), a rat named Rudy (Paul Giamatti) and Danny's captain, Frost (Ron Rifkin).  The police set up a massive blockade around the building, including multiple SWAT units led by Beck (David Morse) and Hellman (Nestor Serrano) who are a bit too gung-ho about going in with guns blazing.

But when you can't trust your friends anymore, Danny says, sometimes the only people you can trust are strangers.  One of the demands Danny makes is that he will only talk to a hostage negotiator named Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey).  Sabian arrives and begins to negotiate with Danny, and soon begins to think that something is up.  But Chris is only interested in getting the hostages out alive, rather than proving Danny's innocence.  As the two go back and forth, each trying to accomplish their goals, those involved in the conspiracy get more and more desperate and the whole situation could easily end up with everyone dead.

"The Negotiator" has plenty of tense sequences, great back and forth dialogue and a couple of sweet shootouts and clever twists.  One of the things it also has, however, is an entirely recognizable cast.  And I really mean that: there's not a single face in this film you won't recognize from somewhere else.  Every role is filled with some recognizable character actor.

The film takes its time getting going.  The whole thing clocks in at about two hours and twenty minutes, and Kevin Spacey doesn't even show up until about forty minutes in.  But this is not to say that the film is slow or boring, it simply moves at a very measured pace.  Things take time to set up, and once Sabian comes into the picture, the pace begins to quicken. 

Jackson and Spacey work really well off of each other.  Their tiffs and bluffs and back and forth is a lot of fun to watch.  Both are actors who are really easy to watch, with real presence.  The director uses lots of close ups and focus on the characters eyes to communicate, which is rather interesting.  Kevin Spacey has a very cool voice, and a sort of calculated way about him that conveys a lot of intelligence.  Samuel L. Jackson is very intense, as usual, and does a fine job making Danny Roman seem frustrated and a bit desperate.  Paul Giamatti in his role as Rudy, one of Danny's unfortunate hostages, is clearly designed to function in a comic relief role, and it works alright, but can be a little grating.  The rest of the cast all does as well as you'd expect them to, since you know who each and every one of them is.

The film isn't perfect, of course.  Some of the scenes between Spacey and the other cops are a little overwrought.  Sabian mentions several times that he has no emotional investment in what is going on, and yet, he's shouting these things, which makes it seem that that he does.   Jackson also gets shot at one point in the film, and it doesn't seem to affect him in any great way.  But these are minor issues with what is, overall, a very fun, fine thriller.