Halfway through The Negotiator, you're sitting in your seat mumbling to yourself, "Wow, this isn't half bad, and to think Stallone was going to star in this thing." It's hard to imagine marble-mouthed Sly working his way through some of the very smart dialogue that keeps this film rolling along when the plot loses its mind.
Fortuitously, Sly passed and Samuel L. Jackson, a silver-tongued rogue if ever there was one, stepped into the breach. Jackson stars as Danny Roman, crack hostage negotiator for the Chicago police. After a particularly heavy day of talking down a scumbag, his partner takes him aside and makes it a bit heavier. Someone is looting the precinct's pension fund and Danny's pal is trying to find out who. Alas, he meets his demise shortly thereafter, and Danny finds himself set up as the patsy.
Realizing that there's no way out of a murder one conviction, Danny sequesters a nefarious internal affairs investigator (snake-eyed J.T. Walsh in his final role). Jackson is brilliant in these early scenes, a man under siege but completely under control. He knows there are some foxes in the henhouse and he intends to smoke (or psyche) them out, whichever comes first. To aid his cause, he demands the presence of a Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), another superstar negotiator from a distant district, uncorrupted and unsuspecting of what Danny's up to.
Spacey and Jackson together are very interesting. For a while. The script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox gives them plenty of great lines to spit out and great pauses for them to brood over. Jackson doesn't have to do his Tarantino shuck and jive, and Spacey at last has a role where he's not a nutter. If only the plot, hinging on the requisite surprise computer files and such, were more plausible.
And director F. Gary Gray, clearly enamored of helicopters, furrowed brows and searchlights, lets things drag on long after the suspense is gone. For the viewer, it's a matter of keeping your eye on Spacey, Walsh and Jackson and counting your blessings that Sly is nowhere in sight.
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