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The Negotiator

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: David Morse, J.T. Walsh

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When I was seven years old I was certain that doctors never got sick. The thought that a doctor could be treated by another physician simply did not enter my mind. After all: teachers knew everything. Would a teacher have to continue reading books and taking courses? F. Gary Gray's police drama "The Negotiator" raises a similar issue. What happens when a hostage mediator takes a hostage himself? Would he dicker with himself over the terms of surrender? That's silly. But since he knows all the tricks of the trade, would any other arbitrator be able to put one over on him? Not likely. Unless, we see, the negotiator is Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), the guy hand-picked by Lt. Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) to be his go-between. Since Roman has now become the victor-victim with a handful of hostages in tow, he can't be fooled by the usual maneuvers like being "talked down." This means that Sabian must improvise for the first time in his life to bring an end to an unbearably tense situation. How he does this--and how Roman deals with his new status--are the concerns of the melodrama, scripted by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox.

Though "The Negotiator" fits seamlessly into the season of formulaic summer spectacles, two particulars lift it above the commonplace. One is DeMonaco and Fox's series of twists and turns. Some of the guys you'd swear are bad turn out to be just doing their job, while at least one of the angels is not what he seems. The other is the tension-riddled performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who creates a believably taut role as a super cop now suspected of murder and, together with the wonderful Kevin Spacey as his adversary and friend light up the screen with verbal histrionics and sizzling action.

The story opens as do many others of the genre with an action unrelated to the central theme. Roman is negotiating with a crazed man who is holding a small girl hostage, demanding to see his estranged wife. The perp, unfamiliar with the tricks of the trade, falls prey to Roman's banter allowing the girl to escape unharmed. Soon after this, Roman's partner (played by Paul Guilfoyle) is murdered in his car and Roman is charged with the crime. We are thrust into a sometimes convoluted plot involving the theft of two million dollars from a policemen's disability fund with evidence pointing to Roman's guilt. Refusing to be taken into custody (he could not tolerate being away from his beloved wife Karen, played by Regina Taylor), Roman takes Inspector Niebaum (J.T. Walsh) hostage in the latter's office together with the local snitch (Nestor Serrano) and Niebaum's secretary. After making the negotiator on hand look like a stuttering dimwit, he insists on speaking only with master haggler Sabian. The central part of the movie is occupied with the badinage between the two brothers-in-arms, Roman insisting on his innocence while Sabian torments the frightened game almost mercilessly.

The on-and-off exposes of bad cops by the press add resonance to the tale of larceny and murder as we try to figure out which of the cops was in on the embezzlement and the murder. Is the guilty party Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin), known as Frosty, who is himself a hostage of Roman? Could it be Commander Beck (David Morse), the humorless officer who is so insistent on shooting Roman that we wonder what he is himself covering up? Or possibly the sinisted Inspector Niebaum, who sits smirking in his chair, insisting on his innocence but made suspect in our eyes because, well, J.T. Walsh is not often known as the good guy. Or could is be the snitch, who supplies most of the story's comic relief?

Shot on location in the streets of Chicago, "The Negotiator" unfortunately regresses into the usual high-explosive category when it would have been served better had it focused strictly on the verbal chess game between the two principals. For a look at how the movie could have been a true blockbuster rather than one which forces volatilility through chemical explosives, take in the video of "Glengarry Glen Ross," also highlighting the talent of Kevin Spacey, or just as well "The Spanish Prisoner," an intricate, wholly involving story of a scam which forbears smoke-filled scenarios.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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