Do we really need to see the great Kevin Spacey fuming and fussing in one of those we-do-things-my-way-or-we-don't-do-them-at-all roles? In The Negotiator, he's playing Chris Sabian, an expert hostage negotiator for the Chicago police, whose job it is to talk down Samuel L. Jackson's Danny Roman, another police expert, who has taken hostages of his own in a flamboyant attempt to buy time and clear himself of phony murder and embezzlement charges. The premise is just loopy enough to have worked as good, trashy entertainment. It's like that old Mad magazine feature "Spy vs. Spy" -- Negotiator vs. Negotiator.
But instead of the cat-and-mouse cogitations and psych-outs one might rightly expect from this high concept, we're fobbed off with a lot of sub-Die Hard theatrics and stinko plotting. This is the kind of movie where we see a murder about to happen on screen and then we hear the gunshot. We're meant to think a killing really took place even though we didn't actually see it. But are even movie critics dumb enough to buy this? And this particular incident is central to the story.
One reason summertime is a silly season for moviegoing is because -- even more than the rest of the year, if that's possible -- Hollywood showcases actors one wants to see in roles they clearly don't care to play (except for the moolah).
The Negotiator begins with the unbuyable notion that Danny Roman, whom we first see risking his life in a hostage situation to save a little girl, has no real friends in his entire Chicago police precinct. On the job, hasn't he also saved many of his fellow officers? No matter. All that goodwill flies out the window when he's accused of murdering his partner and bilking the pension fund. In a skyscraper, he takes the internal affairs chief (the late, lamented J.T. Walsh), who may be framing him, as hostage, along with several of his associates (Siobhan Fallon and an amusingly over-the-top Paul Giamatti) and a police commander (Ron Rifkin). That's when Chris Sabian is brought in with a Mighty Mouse flourish to save the day.
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If this film -- directed by F. Gary Gray and scripted by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox -- actually got into the psychological entanglements of hostage negotiations, it might have held us with its novelty. But beyond a few primer-book examples, we never get any insight into how these guys operate. A great hostage negotiator must be an intricate cross of a psychiatrist and a seducer and a cad, with lightning-fast intuitions and cast-iron balls. It's a sentimental notion in this film that Chris, who will do whatever it takes to save Danny's hostages, ends up joining Danny's crusade for truth.
It's also a bit much to ask us to join in that crusade after we've seen Danny do creepo stuff, like sacrifice himself up to SWAT choppers while hollering, "You want my blood? Take my blood!" Danny is supposed to be enraged by his own martyrdom, but he's so dangerously out of control that you sort of sympathize with all the (supposed) bad guys who want to take him down.
Danny in his skyscraper aerie offering himself up to the buzzing, blasting SWAT choppers is as loony as anything in King Kong. Except it's played straight -- for that extra measure of righteousness. This movie needs a cold shower.
Directed by F. Gary Gray. With Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ron Rifkin, J.T. Walsh and Paul Giamatti.