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The Negotiator (1998)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

The Negotiator is a well-acted, well-staged action flick, but its greatest accomplishment is disguising just how preposterous it is.  Ninety-nine times of a hundred, nothing about this plot works, and Samuel L. Jackson’s protagonist ends up either locked in the pokey or deader than sweet disco.  If you can accept that this is that one-percent prayer, you’ll get some decent entertainment out of The Negotiator.  Think about any of it too hard, and the story falls apart like wet newspaper.

Negotiator kicks off with a killer opening.  Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is a legendary hostage negotiator for the Chicago Police Department.  As the film begins, Danny must talk down a suicidal ex-con (Tom Bower), who’s taken his child hostage.  It’s a tense, chilling sequence, and a master class in how to hook your audience right from the jump.  At the same time, we also see Danny’s skill at resolving a crisis without a body count.

With this potential tragedy averted, Danny’s SWAT team heads to the bar for celebratory beers.  Of course,  this revelry has an ominous undercurrent:  Karen (Regina Taylor), Danny’s wife, worries that her husband’s brazen heroics will eventually get him killed.  Some of his fellow cops seem annoyed to see his face splashed across the evening news.  Even as the team loads up on boozy camaraderie, it’s clear that something isn’t quite right.

That feeling only deepens when Nate, Danny’s partner (Paul Guilfoyle, uncredited), drops a bombshell:  An anonymous informant has informed him that several of Danny’s most trusted co-workers are on the take.  Danny is shocked, but vows to help.  Unfortunately, Nate is murdered before he can assemble definitive proof.  Even worse, Danny is framed for the killing, and painted as the dirty cop.

Danny senses his life unraveling, and resorts to drastic measures.  He commandeers a floor at police headquarters, taking multiple hostages in the process.  His captives include an icy bureaucrat (J.T. Walsh, in his penultimate performance), a shifty informant (Paul Giamatti), and a feisty secretary (Siobhan Fallon).  Finally, a charismatic police captain (Ron Rifkin) might have just the info Danny needs.

Every cop in the city descends on the building, and Danny greets them with a simple demand:  He wants Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) to conduct the negotiations.  Sabian is from another precinct, and therefore clear from this scandal.  Further, Danny knows every trick in Sabian’s playbook, and Sabian knows that he knows.  From here, Danny will try to work the system and make Sabian a believer, while also uncovering information that can prove the conspiracy and set him free.

Once this main plot sets in moition, The Negotiator is a frenetic, exciting experience. Even at 140 minutes, two fiery lead performances and a tightly-wound script ensure that the film’s energy never lags. This constant momentum also prevents the viewer from thinking too hard about what they’re seeing.

Put it this way:  The plot Negotiator is essentially a thousand dominos in a line.  Nothing about Danny’s plan works unless everything falls just right.  As he digs for evidence, he is surrounded by corrupt snipers, SWAT invaders, and powerful officials sworn to kill him on sight.  I’ve seen this movie quite a few times, and each viewing makes it more difficult to believe that Danny could ever come out of this movie alive.

Even still, I found a lot to enjoy here.  On the strength of sheer star power, Jackson and Spacey greatly elevate the film.  They were two of the most watchable actors to emerge from the 90s, and both are in peak form here.  (It’s difficult to separate Spacey’s controversy from his work, and the only thing I know to do is evaluate the latter in a vacuum.)

The Negotiator gets another boost from its supporting cast.  If you could program AI to generate a 90s action flick with top-notch character actors, you’d probably get a roster of John Spencer, David Morse, Paul Giamatti, Ron Rifkin, J.T. Walsh, Michael Cudlitz, and Paul Guilfoyle.  You’ll spend most of this movie in a common refrain:  “Wait, isn’t that what’s-his-name from that one show?”

Other than combing IMDB and pairing faces to names, you really shouldn’t pour too much thought into The Negotiator.  In fact, if you can fully get into this movie’s fast-paced flow, you might rate it even higher than I did.  I know more than a few people who rank it as a minor classic. This is popcorn entertainment in its finest form, and well worth a stream.

140 min.  R.  Netflix.

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