The Negotiator

When the city of Chicago faces a tough hostage situation, they call in Danny Roman. Roman is the best at what he does, and proves it during an intense opening standoff involving a deranged, disgruntled husband holding his daughter hostage. Willing to put his life on the line, Roman is a hero to the masses, but is considered reckless by his new wife Karen.

So in a tender moment, Roman tells Karen that his crazy days are over. “See that train leaving,” he asks Karen playfully. “Crazy is on it.” For a man starting a new life, it only makes sense. Little else makes sense in the James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox screenplay, supposedly based on a true story.

“The Negotiator” is a prime example of how good actors and a director can rise above the material and make it much more than it really is. The script is top-heavy with implausible situations and plot holes big enough to fit Kenneth Starr’s ego through them. Thanks to bullet-proof direction by F. Gary Gray (“Set It Off”) and star turns by Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, “The Negotiator” is actually suspenseful and entertaining.

Jackson is superb as Roman, a simple man who has a gift for defusing volatile situations. He’s the man I would want in such an emergency. So who do you call when the top negotiator becomes the hostage taker? That’s an interesting premise, one that gets a maximum workout.

When Roman is framed for killing his partner by crooked cops stealing millions from he pension fund, his situation becomes so desperate that he ends up taking Chief of Internal Affairs Terence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh) hostage to clear his name. Also in the room are Niebaum’s no-nonsense secretary Maggie (Siobahn Fallon), and street informant Rudy (Paul Giamatti). Police Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin) joins the fray when he tries to talk Roman down.

Well fortified on the 20th floor of a Federal Building, Roman knows all the tricks of the trade, and manages to keep the police at bay. His only demand is that fellow police negotiator Chris Sabian (Spacey) be brought to the scene.

We first meet Sabian in what looks like a tough negotiation. It isn’t until the camera pulls back that we realize he’s trying to coax his wife out of the bedroom to go on a ski trip. A cruel remark by their daughter has sent her into hiding, and Sabian uses his skills to soothe the situation. Sabian is good, and just the man to neutralize the Roman hostage situation. He too knows the rules of the game, and it’s these confrontations between the two that elevate the film from standard action fare into something more dramatic.

What a pleasure it is to watch to actors at the top of their form square off against each other. While Roman tries to unravel the conspiracy from inside, Sabian tries every trick in the book to resolve the situation without violence. Try telling that to hot-to-trot Commander Adam Beck (David Morse), who believes Roman is guilty and is willing to bring him down one way or another.

“Set It Off” showed director F. Gary Gray’s ability to create intense situations with just a handful of players, and he manages the same with “The Negotiator.” Things really pick up when the key players begin to realize that Roman is telling the truth, but too late to stop the Feds and the Frost from making some fatal mistakes.

At 138 minutes, “The Negotiator” is also long in the tooth. It could have easily been tightened by both the director and writers. Thank goodness they have pros like Jackson, Spacey, Regina Taylor and the incomparable J.T. Walsh on their side making even the most ridiculous plot point seem relevant. I especially liked the sassy Fallon as the secretary who knows more than she should.

“The Negotiator” looks great, well lit and shot by “Titanic” director of cinematography Russell Carpenter. Christian Wagner’s editing is a major plus, while the score by Graeme Revell highlights the underlying tension. Not a bad film, “The Negotiator” could have been a great film with a little more thought.



Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, John Spencer, J.T. Walsh, David Morse, Ron Rifkin, Regina Taylor in a film directed by F. Gary Gray. Rated R. 138 Min.


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