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IN SHORT: Good popcorn flick.
Normally, in the second half of the summer, your local theaters get the leftovers. This means the flicks which the studios didn't think had enough bang to go up against the circa July fourth special effects bonanzas, nor are "serious" enough to be contenders in the end of the year Oscar® wannabe race. Cranky's seeing something different this year, though. He's seeing a lot of lousy television commercials for more than the average number of enjoyable flicks.
The premise of The Negotiator is why the commercials bite. It's not simple enough to explain in one line. It'll take at least three which, when you're paying big bucks for every second of TV time, is two too many. Here goes: "A top notch police negotiator is framed by corrupt cops and forced to take hostages to get to the bottom of the matter."
Boy, that sounds dumb. Which is why I don't write ad copy. For what The Negotiator delivers is a pretty enjoyable dance with paranoia, as Chicago cop Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is framed for the theft of $2 million from a police disability fund and the brutal murder of his partner, who uncovered the theft. Documents that indicate that Danny has the money have been found in his home. Faster than you can blink, a moment of panic leads to a confrontation with an Internal Affairs detective (J.T. Walsh) and a spontaneous hostage situation. Called in to negotiate the affair is Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another top notch negotiator, from a different police precinct.
It's a "you can't trust your friends, so you have to win a stranger's trust" situation, and the two men play off each other very nicely. Danny is sharp. He knows the "rules of engagement" -- exactly how far the cops are allowed to go in these situations. He knows the tools of the trade, for eavesdropping and attack and he bunkers his captives down against the coming storm. He's also a cool talker, as we see in an opening scene from the days when he's a "good" cop.
Spacey's Chris Sabian is even cooler. He gives orders and he takes no guff. So you can imagine the steam coming from his ears when various senior officers keep trying to take Danny out, ie. kill him, which would end the situation and prevent the truly guilty cops from being discovered. You'd also be surprised how much humor is packed into a high tension situation in the script by James DeMonaco & Kevin Fox, allegedly based on a "true story" of a similar hostage negotiator in St. Louis. It sounds way too outrageous to be real, so it probably is.
The problem is that DeMonaco and Fox push a little too far, which brings Cranky back to his old gripe about film student reviewers versus real people. I got into a "deep" conversation on the way out of the theater with a pair of FS's who picked the script apart based on their personal feelings about pacing and emotional levels. Frankly, Cranky only cares about having a good time in the dark.
But, yeah, there are at least two glitches in the script, the most major of which is the bombastic finger pointing at potential suspects. Director F. Gary Gray pulls a visual trick at the time of the murder, so watch closely and see if you aren't as mislead as Cranky was as the film plays out. Saying more would give too much away. Other than that, Gray has previously shown a fine hand in dealing with cops and robbers, in the rentable Set It Off and the visuals don't let you down here.
The stars of the show are the stars of the show. Jackson and Spacey are a well matched pair. Jackson's character is close enough to crazy that, though you know he's innocent you're never sure how capable he is of doing something nasty. Spacey's the incredibly normal guy who gets more and more controlling as the situation spins further out of control. It's a fun battle of wits and negotiated deals. The supporting cast, suspects all, includes a large number of well known faces -- Ron Rifkin (last up in LA Confidential), David Morse (St. Elsewhere), John Spencer (LA Law).
Get the large popcorn and have a good time.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Negotiator, he would have paid . . .
Oh yeah, the other glitch. The $2 million stolen is from the disability fund. After his partner's murder Danny refers to it as the pension fund. Later on he consistently calls it the disability fund. It's the kind of minor thing you'd see in Premiere magazine's gaffe squad column, but for some reason it caught Cranky's ear.
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