Saturday 19 June 2021

Movie Review: The Negotiator (1998)

A hostage drama, The Negotiator promises a cerebral duel but defaults to flabby and bland thriller cliches.

Lieutenant Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is the top hostage negotiator with the Chicago Police Department, popular with his colleagues and a media celebrity. After Danny resolves yet another harrowing hostage ordeal by placing himself in danger, his wife Karen (Regina Taylor) pleads with him to take fewer risks. Danny's partner Nate then reveals knowledge of a corrupt group of officers stealing from the pension fund, including members of Internal Affairs, the supposed watchdog.

Nate is soon killed and Danny is framed, losing his badge. About to be charged and imprisoned, he barges into the office of Internal Affairs Inspector Terence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh), taking him and a group of others hostage. Danny will only talk with Lieutenant Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another expert negotiator. A prolonged hostage ordeal follows, with some members of the police force loyal to Danny but others wanting him permanently silenced.

Directed by F. Gary Gray and co-written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, The Negotiator sets the stage for what could have been a gripping battle of wits, but withdraws into mundane territory. After a long and patient introduction to define Danny Roman as a charismatic character worth caring about, the narrative starts to wobble with the half-baked introduction of the corruption plot. A good protagonist needs a worthy villain, but instead too many blank but possibly evil grim-faced police officers, some in suits and others in uniform, are thrown at the screen, none of them defined to any useful degree. 

The result is Danny attempting to smoke out unknown and invisible opponents, robbing the film of meaningful tension. Indeed, as the excessive 140 minutes drag on, incidental hostages Paul Giamatti (as a petty criminal) and Siobhan Fallon (as Niebaum's assistant) emerge as the next most interesting characters, which is not a good thing. 

Kevin Spacey as the other expert negotiator arrives too late into the movie and contributes little. Spacey appears curiously disinterested and is poorly served by an overcrowded command structure with multiple men trying to issue orders that are anyway ignored.

In any event writers DeMonaco and Fox don't have the courage to trust a mental showdown. The Negotiator resorts to computer clicks, procedural shootouts and flash-bang grenades. By the time the conspirators are revealed, the negotiations have long since been defeated by a lack of imagination. 

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