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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