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by: Scott Renshaw

Sometimes it's obvious that a film isn't about the plot, it's about the names above the title. Cocktail was no more about a coming-of-age than it was about the Middle East peace process; it was about Tom Cruise smiling. Up Close and Personal was about as interested in journalistic ethics as Jerry Springer; it was about Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer sharing soft-focus love scenes. And could you differentiate between any of Schwarzenegger's non-Terminator action films if forced at gunpoint? For better or for worse - more often the latter - contemporary Hollywood films often sell personalities rather than stories.

If you watched commercials or previews for The Negotiator closely enough, you'd realize that Warner Bros. isn't selling us a story about a veteran hostage negotiator named Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) who takes hostages in a police building after he's framed for insurance fraud and the murder of his partner (Paul Guilfoyle), nor about the cool negotiator Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) Roman demands as his police liaison. No, The Negotiator is about a showdown between Jackson and Spacey, two actors whose intensity and burning intelligence make them magnetically watchable. Even with theatrical trailers awash in spraying bullets and shattering glass, you expect that the real warfare in The Negotiator will be psychological: a chess match between Roman and Sabian as characters, but more significantly between Jackson and Spacey as actors.

If The Negotiator had delivered on that promise, it would have been one of those rare exceptions where a "personality plot" would have been just fine. You just know it's headed squarely in the wrong direction when it becomes clear how much time is going to be spent on figuring out who's behind the police conspiracy to set up. Is it Internal Affairs Inspector Niebaum (the late J. T. Walsh)? Grandfatherly Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin)? Hard-nosed Commander Beck (David Morse)? Mission chief Travis (John Spencer)? Will the mysterious informant turn up? Will computer files tell all?

Who cares? For all the sound and fury surrounding both the conspiracy and the attempts to storm Roman's 20th floor hole-up, The Negotiator is built on the clash of two characters who win not by shooting faster, but by thinking faster, by turning words into their most effective weapons. Jackson and Spacey take the two similar roles and turn them into distinct individuals so deftly that the slices of family life which are supposed to give them a back-story seem embarrassingly clumsy by contrast. In Jackson's hands, Roman isn't a righteous super-cop on a quest for justice; he's more like an arrogant super-star who can't believe he's being treated like an ordinary citizen. The flicker of instability which makes it possible to believe he'd kill perfectly complements the icy resolve of Spacey's Sabian. When those two characters lock wits and eyes, each struggling to size the other up and determine whether he sees an ally or an adversary, The Negotiator is absolutely compelling.

Those moments just don't occur nearly often enough. Spacey doesn't make his first appearance until nearly 45 minutes have passed, leaving The Negotiator plenty of time to detour onto well-worn action-suspense avenues. Though Paul Giamatti (fast becoming the most recognizable unknown actor in movies) provides solid comic relief as a con artist among Roman's hostages, even the one-liners further emphasize that this drama really isn't anything special. It could have been and should have been more than another Die Hard clone, more than an over-long mystery where you begin to feel you should leave as soon as you figure out the real bad guy. The Negotiator should have played to the strength of its cast, with more scenes of Roman reducing his colleagues to blubbering bowls


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