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'The Negotiator':
Two Stars Lost in the Plot Twists

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 1998

  Movie Critic

The Negotiator
Samuel L. Jackson takes hostages in "The Negotiator." (Warner Bros.)

F. Gary Gray
Samuel L. Jackson;
David Morse;
Kevin Spacey;
Regina Taylor;
J.T. Walsh;
Ron Rifkin
Running Time:
2 hours, 21 minutes
Violence and profanity
"The Negotiator" is a whodunit so bafflingly constructed that you can't even figure out what it is, so the whodun part is superfluous.

Squandering the gargantuan talents of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, it follows two professional police negotiators – the guys who try to talk crazed hostage-takers into surrender – who unite in an effort to figure out who's siphoning money from a police retirement fund. Unfortunately, they do this while one of them is holding six hostages and daring the entire SWAT population of Chicago's law enforcement community to blow him out of his Reeboks.

Though handsome to look at, the film is about five rewrites shy of intelligibility. It seems like a slick action film grafted on to a comedy piece sending up plot twists – in other words, it's a $50 million David Letterman skit. Even the performers, redoubtable though they may be, seem a little lost in the thickets of plot and counterplot.

Jackson plays Danny Roman, the department's No. 1 talker. In the early going – actually, the film's best set piece – he uses his line of patter to maneuver a crazed ex-Marine close to a window. There, a sniper neatly plugs the fellow in the shoulder and everybody goes home happy and alive.

But the next night, Danny's partner, who has intimated dark but nebulous secrets about the department and the fund, is killed by a mysterious gunman. Danny, himself maneuvered to the crime scene, is quickly fingered as the prime suspect. When incriminating documents are found in his files, he's removed from the force and about to be indicted. Going to the Internal Affairs Division in a downtown skyscraper to confront his accuser (an overbearing investigator played by the late, great J.T. Walsh, who deserved a better send-off), he gets in a hysterical scuffle, grabs another cop's pistol and takes hostages.

He knows the drill: A negotiator will be assigned to him. He trusts nobody in his own precinct, so he requests an outsider: No. 1 West Side talker Chris Sabian (Spacey). Upon taking over the phone, Chris begins to wonder why so many people are so eager to kill Danny and why the momentum toward violent solution is so difficult to resist. There are enough SWAT cops around to save Private Ryan. (The film makes a strong but inadvertent point about the militarization of the police, and the way each town now fields its own commando unit.)

Director F. Gary Gray is so in love with SWAT culture that you suspect he longs to be a sniper or the primary entry guy in the Kevlar body armor and helmet and the MP5 with the laser aimer. But the cop he needed for the script was much less glamorous: a traffic cop. Gray has a lot of trouble with pedestrian management. Seemingly a siege story, the film is really spread over several locations – the downtown building, the command center, a bad cop's house – and so he's got to keep clumsily shunting people hither, thither and yon until the movie resembles a 10K walk. People are always getting in and out by unseen elevators or ducts just when it's most convenient.

The film misuses both its stars: Each is at full pitch of brilliance when playing somebody with edge, with intelligence or cunning beaming from behind sly eyes. You can always feel their minds working. But here, as conventional straight-up action heroes, each seems a little lost among the red herrings and all the machine guns. Jackson always seems petulant and victimized and semi-hysterical, while Spacey never convinces as a tough guy, and when he's asked to run into the building (another traffic problem), he looks like Oliver Hardy chasing Stan Laurel.

Someone should have negotiated a deal with the scriptwriters on this one.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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