Review: Jackson, Spacey hostage to an average 'Negotiator'
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- It's no secret that Hollywood is making way too many movies these days, but that goes double for big, banging genre movies. There's such a glut of product -- and so many writers who get the gestures right, but are unable to lay any real emotion down on a written page -- that most of our current "traditional" exercises end up being driven by scenes we've seen before, dialogue we've heard before, and situations that, if you haven't seen them before, have been previously nonexistent because they're not even the least bit believable.
Director F. Gary Gray's "The Negotiator," isn't a monstrosity, but it's still far closer to bad than it is to good. This is another example of the button-pushing school of screenwriting, in which a lengthy series of musty-smelling genre nods are supposed to be ignored because the central conceit of the story is a little bit different than all the other button-pushers that people have lined up for in the past.
Though co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey do what they can to pump a little heat into it, the peripheral characters run around shouting and aiming their guns at each other like they've stepped over from the last pre-digested cop movie you saw, and simply decided to keep up the charade.
Jackson in the best role
The first 30 or 40 minutes are so obvious, you start to like you're watching one of those dumbo action flicks that Bart Simpson is always glued to in the living room. Jackson paves the way as Danny Roman, a Chicago Police hostage negotiator, who, in the time-honored tradition, isn't just good -- he's the best!
Every man on the force respects him, and, as we see during a decently handled opening sequence, he's ready to act against orders and put himself in the line of fire if it means saving an innocent victim. Danny knows how to talk the talk and walk the walk better than anyone else, and always comes out a winner because ... he's the best! You got that, man?! The best!
The signifiers are all firmly in place in this one. For instance, there's a big party for one of the police brethren shortly after Danny successfully puts his butt on the line at the beginning of the movie. During the over-jovial drinking, singing, and dancing, we're introduced to Danny's long-time partner, who, looking troubled, quietly tells Danny that he needs to talk to him. The second this happened, I pegged the guy for dead meat. Minutes later, his meat was no longer living.
Shrugging off danger
I guess it didn't help that, in the connecting scene, Danny and his new wife (Regina Taylor) had a tense conversation about how terribly dangerous his job is, with Danny sort of shrugging it all off.
This is one of the very first rules of the genre. Any time a cocky cop shrugs off danger in the presence of either his wife or kids (or mom, or dog), you best start thinkin' about hittin' the floor. The murder of his partner, it turns out, is the key element of a set-up, in which Danny will be railroaded by his superiors into taking the fall for millions of dollars that have disappeared from the police fund.
The superiors are all scraggly-looking guys who smoke too many cigarettes and have loosely knotted ties, in case you couldn't guess. It's easy to tell that at least one of them is definitely wrong, because he's played by the late, great character actor, J.T. Walsh, who appears here in his final role. I always liked Walsh, and will greatly miss his brand of oily insincerity. I wrote in my review of "Breakdown" that Walsh's real gift is his ability to make you want to smack him one, and I'm proud to say that he kept it up right until the end.
Single original idea
Danny doesn't necessarily want to smack him, but, when he figures out that he's about to do jail time for supposedly killing his friend and stealing the money, he bursts into police headquarters with a gun and takes Walsh and a couple other people hostage.
This is the single original idea in the movie because Danny, as we well know, is the best when it comes to hostage negotiations, so the cops won't be able to play their usual psychological games while talking to him. This is made abundantly clear when Danny effortlessly needles the designated negotiator into a near-blubbering wreck simply by making him feel bad for using the word "no" too often during their introductory conversation. Boy, that Danny's good.
Eventually, Kevin Spacey shows up as a fellow negotiator named Chris Sabien. Chris is evidently just as devastating a negotiator as Danny is; he just works on the other side of town. The two actors then dive into an extended game of wits as Danny tries to get the cops to come clean. The news media, right on cue, shows up on the street in front of the building, giving him a public forum for voicing his complaints.
I think we're supposed to feel like the hostages (outside of Walsh, the little weasel) are growing sort of fond of Danny. But Jackson spends so much time sarcastically yelling into the phone and cursing at police helicopters, I didn't think much about the hostages at all. For the record, they're nicely played by Paul Giamatti ("Pig Vomit" from Howard Stern's "Private Parts") and Siobhan Fallon. (Ron Rifkin is also a hostage at first, but Jackson lets him go so that he can get shifty-eyed during the cross-cutting.)
Spacey calm (pause) and precise
We're also supposed to be afraid that Jackson will start executing people if he doesn't get satisfaction from the cops. But if you think the star of a movie this expensive is gonna start tossing bodies out the door halfway through the story, you're far more gutsy than the average studio executive.
I think Spacey is one of the four or five best actors in the world, so I'm not really making fun of him, but there's a little routine he does in every one of his movies that pops up a few times in this one, too. It basically consists of Spacey, with a zen calm overtaking his features, very precisely (pause) and very gently (pause) explaining the situation (pause) to a person (pause) who obviously doesn't have the goods (pause) to deal with things (pause) as calmly (pause) and precisely (pause) as Spacey does.
Delivered via his elegantly laid-back intonation, this has become a Spacey trademark that's edging dangerously close to self-parody by now. It's not as old as everything else in the movie, though, so it was sort of fun to see again.
There's a twist near the end of "The Negotiator" that would have been pretty cool if I hadn't already seen it 50 times while watching the trailer. By that point, though, I had had enough. Now that Jackson and Spacey have their big action-pic paychecks, I hope they can get back to being brilliant actors, instead of just brilliant plot devices. They're way too good for this kind of thing. In fact, they're the best! Man.
"The Negotiator" contains profanity, lots of shooting, and supposedly tense situations. CLICHÉ WARNING: Overt main- character-as-Christ imagery, which always looks deep when you don't know what else to do. Rated R. 100 minutes.
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