The Negotiator (1998)

Directed by F. Gary Gray
Written by James DeMonaco & Kevin Fox
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ron Rifkin, J.T. Walsh, David Morse

My Advice: Matinee.

It seems like this had all the potential to be another formulaic disaster, right?  I mean, let's face it--you know how Hollywood is: "Let's get a cop drama, you know, cop vs. cop or something.  Like Die Hard except it's two good guys or maybe good guys.  You never know.  And let's get two kickass actors and drop them in the mix.  Simmer for a couple of weeks of shooting and serve over rice."  I mean, at most you'd get good performances out of Jackson and Spacey because they're acting gods, right?  Surprise.  The damn thing flies, Orville.

For those of you who haven't seen the trailer (which gave the entire plot away, dammit), here's the skinnee:  Danny Roman (Jackson) is the star hostage negotiator in Chicago.  His partner (Paul Guilfoyle) has stumbled onto a scam going on with police pensions.  Next thing Danny knows he's being setup for the entire ordeal--and setup well.  Backed into a wall and faced with the possibility of being dragged to the slammer, he takes his own hostages and demands to speak with another negotiator, Chris Sabian (Spacey).  Danny knows "the rules of engagement" like the back of his hand, so it's not going to be easy to talk him down.

This is a well written yarn that rises above all of the normal pitfalls of such a film.  The list of suspects Danny has to deal with is as long as the cast list and never really excludes Jackson and Spacey, so you can't guess from the get-go whodunit.  Also interesting is the fact that we have all of these characters dealing with the aforementioned "rulebook" for how to deal with hostage situations--it's never far from their minds how far they can bend these rules.  The direction is taut and we are left with several harrowing moments where anything could go.  Jackson and Spacey are dead on target as the two negotiators who are, on more than one occasion, at each other's throats--almost literally.  The supporting cast is chock full of great character actors, including David Morse as a trigger happy SWAT team commander, J.T. Walsh in his last role as the number one suspect IA officer, and the very funny Paul Giamatti as Rudy, a snitch who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and winds up a hostage.  All in all, it's a suspenseful story that satisifies.  It's listed as "Matinee" simply because we like to err on the side of saving money--but definitely check it out.

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