a critiQal film review The Negotiator (1998)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: Maverick hostage negotiator Danny Roman (Jackson) is framed for embezzlement and murder. Newly married and unjustly faced with prison, Roman turns hostage-taker to smoke out the guilty ones. Squaring off against him is respected, methodical negotiator Chris Sabian (Spacey). Under siege and racing the clock, the two lock in a deadly battle of wits.

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While we usually are able to get the latest movies thanks to Blockbuster®, this week we forgot to return our movies in enough time to get the next hot new releases by the weekend, so had to go to the store and pay for additional rentals. Since I didn’t want to pay big bucks (after all, we’re already paying a fee every month), I decided to go into the older films, since they are much cheaper to rent.

While perusing the aisles, I discovered a lot of my choices (Deep Cover, The Phantom, The Big Hit even The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)) weren’t just not available, the store no longer carried them at all! With my choices narrowed down even further, I finally settled on The Negotiator. With Samuel L. Jackson (a site fave) taking a lead role, it was a film I’d been meaning to see for awhile. Had the poor selection given me a movie worth watching, or should I just have rented something new?

Samuel L. Jackson, as usual, does an excellent job in The Negotiator. A police negotiator, he finds his life turned upside down when his partner is murdered and he’s blamed. Looking to unearth the conspiracy, he takes a member of Internal Affairs – who he believes to be involved in the cover-up – hostage. Samuel L. Jackson is able to make every part of his character’s actions believable. While the viewer may agree or disagree personally with his decisions, they know the character believes what he’s doing is the only path left open to him – and that’s all thanks to Samuel L. Jackson. Whether he’s a Jedi Knight or a mob hitman, he always brings conviction to his characters, making his character stand-out – no matter how bad the rest of the film is.

Kevin Spacey, who has proven his brilliance in the past in The Usual Suspects (1995), takes on what is, for him, a very normal character. Gone are the oddities he usually brings to his roles – this is the normal side of Kevin Spacey, and it’s a refreshing experience. He’s good at garnering the viewer’s trust, making them give that trust to his character to use as he sees fit. While Samuel L. Jackson always seems to come across as somebody the audience would appreciate as a friend, Spacey comes across more as a person who seems trustworthy, but who most would take with a grain of salt.

That slight doubt the audience harbors about Spacey’s intentions helps racket the tension ever higher in The Negotiator. Is Spacey’s Chris Sabian on the side of Jackson’s Danny Roman, or is he just setting him up to fall even harder? That question – plus the questionable motives of the police force surrounding Sabian – keeps this hostage film a thriller from start to finish.

While the plotline is a bit hazy – a cop crossing the lines to prove he’s innocent does come off as a bit over-the-top, after all – but like other similar films, The Negotiator pulls it off easily. With so many unknowns floating throughout the film (will Danny Roman make it, or just foolishly trapping himself even further? which one of the cops is on the take – or is it all of them? is Chris Sabian part of it too, or is he really the outsider he claims to be?), the film keeps the viewer’s interest throughout – and ends up wrapping things up decently enough in the end.

Too many films have a good premise and a great body, but the ending seems tacked on and, really, tacky. After the excitement of the film, the viewer is let down at the end, and leaves the theater (or their couch) shaking their heads in disgust at the neat little bow the film eventually finds itself wrapped up in.

Thankfully, The Negotiator is much more well thought out. With questions galore to keep the viewer guessing throughout, the film leads the viewer on a tense ride from start to finish. Sure, the finish does seem a bit cliched by this point, but back in ’98, it wasn’t as much so, and the viewer needs to take that into account when watching. Cliched or not, however, the ending still seems a logical part of the film, and most viewers will leave The Negotiator thankful for the tense journey.

If you haven’t seen this Jackson/Spacey duet yet, you should. You’ll be glad you did.

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