None of the tip sheets on the summer's hottest movies gambled on The Negotiator. Now, as the predicted victors — Godzilla, Armageddon and The X-Files — face a critical and box-office backlash, this little-hyped thriller emerges as a dark-horse winner by reminding us of how pleasurably exciting a popcorn movie can be when it's populated by actors who are in it for more than an exorbitant fee. The cast members mix it up with such relish, you get the feeling they'd even pay to see The Negotiator. Try to imagine Bruce Willis shelling out for a ticket to Armageddon.
No use pretending that The Negotiator is more than it is, either. It's overlong by at least twenty minutes, and clichés abound in the script, by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox. What puts the tick in this flick is Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, who are double dynamite as Chicago hostage negotiators locked in a battle of wits. The idea isn't new: Eddie Murphy played a similar role, to dismal effect, in Metro. The difference here is that Jackson and Spacey tear into this hamburger as if it were filet mignon.
Jackson's Danny Roman is the top cop in his field; if he can't talk the ear off a hostage taker with his homeboy rap, Danny will jump in and blow his head off instead. Spacey's Chris Sabian shoots exclusively from the lip; he trusts his verbal skills to defuse tension. These pros barely know each other — they work separate Chicago precincts — but they do know each other's tricks.
This comes in handy for Danny when he is falsely charged with embezzlement and murder by the department of Internal Affairs (IA), headed by Inspector Niebaum (J.T. Walsh). Danny demands that Chris be brought in. Why should the cops listen? Danny, in a new role as hostage taker, has strolled into IA headquarters on the twentieth floor of a Chicago high-rise and drawn a gun on Niebaum and his staff. Danny will start shooting unless Niebaum comes clean about the frame-up or Chris can talk him into surrendering.
That's the setup. Hard to swallow, maybe, but worth the suspension of disbelief just to watch Jackson and Spacey work magic as they wring wild action and wicked laughs from a pooped-out plot. The secret, of course, is that the young director F. Gary Gray has found the human touch he's been striving for since he left music videos (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre) for features. Gray's 1995 debut film, Friday, suffered from showoff superficiality. But his 1996 effort, Set It Off, probed the psyches of four black women in the L.A. projects who take to robbing banks and showcased a haunting portrayal from Queen Latifah.
Gray directs The Negotiator with a keen eye for the action that reveals character. Aside from a few easy pleas for sympathy — newlywed Danny is torn from his bride, Karen (the excellent Regina Taylor) — the film rarely stoops to tear-jerking. There's a SWAT team out there, ready to rappel down from a police chopper at the order of Cmdr. Beck (David Morse) and waste Danny. Producer David Hoberman has given Gray an action crew to die for, including cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Oscared for Titanic) and editor Christian Adam Wagner (Face/Off). Still, Gray accentuates the personal dynamics of one cop hounded by other cops whom he'd once considered family.
Jackson and Spacey do something even more roguishly clever: They play the subtext of the film as two formidable actors — not just formidable negotiators — engaged in psychological warfare. Think about it. Danny and Chris are participants in a game at which they are equally expert; ditto Jackson and Spacey. Each man has seen the other practicing his craft; Jackson and Spacey even worked together in A Time to Kill. Neither the actors nor the cops they play can rely on old tricks.
If two stars of limited range, say Stallone and Schwarzenegger, had been cast as the hostage negotiators, there would be less tension and fun in the verbal sparring. The silver-tongued Jackson is no one-trick pony. His role as a hit man in Pulp Fiction owes nothing to the banked fires he shows as a middle-class doctor in Eve's Bayou. Onscreen in Jungle Fever or onstage in The Piano Lesson, Jackson resolutely defies pigeonholing.
The same goes for the wily, resourceful Spacey. His Oscar-winning turn in The Usual Suspects (Keyser, indeed) is a tribute to his chameleon qualities. You'll look in vain for repetition or laziness in his portrayals of a Hollywood producer in Swimming With Sharks and a Hollywood cop in L.A. Confidential. His varied stage work, be it Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers or his current London stint in Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, consistently garners raves.
Jackson and Spacey raise the bar on popular entertainment by giving The Negotiator the full commitment of their talents. And they spark the other actors, also stage trained, including John Spencer and Ron Rifkin as cops who harbor secrets. Best of all is J.T. Walsh as the IA chief who may not be as guilty as Danny thinks. Walsh invests Niebaum with dimensions unimagined in the script, and he does it while tied to a chair for most of the film. It's an unerring performance from an underrated actor who died earlier this year at fifty-four, leaving a legacy of work on stage (Glengarry Glen Ross), on TV (Crime of the Century) and in film (Breakdown, Sling Blade, the upcoming Pleasantville) that will be more fully appreciated with time. For a big actor, there is no such thing as a small part.
There are no small actors in The Negotiator. From the mesmerizing ambiguity of Walsh's supporting role to the fireworks delivered by Jackson and Spacey, this movie persuades formula-jaded audiences that escapism done right doesn't have to dumb down to dazzle. The Negotiator does it right.