Formula and convention, stereotype and cliché comprise the lifeblood of popular cinema – taking into account those periodical, spectacular clots that slow down the system.
It is hard to say exactly why The Negotiator is such an unexciting action piece: the plot moves, cast, director and technical resources are all in place to at least deliver the usual goods. But few genre films in recent memory are this lack-lustre.
Like many commercial enterprises, the script is patched together from bits and pieces of previous successes. The general topic of police corruption, plus a couple of key actors (Kevin Spacey and Ron Rifkin) are borrowed from L.A. Confidential (1997). The contemporary setting – essentially a single high-rise building used as a fortress against a mass siege – recalls Die Hard (1988) and its many imitations. The intricate web of betrayals, deceptions and bluffs that structure the plot's tension and mystery evoke such recent Elmore Leonard adaptations as Out of Sight (1998) and Jackie Brown (1997).
If only The Negotiator was a fraction as intriguing or involving as any of these films. The story centres on Danny (Samuel L. Jackson), a flash negotiator, expert in talking unhinged citizens out of committing rash acts in the midst of crisis situations. When Danny finds himself framed by anonymous, crooked colleagues on the force, he too must step over the line by taking hostages and acting tough while demanding that truth and justice be honoured.
The most curious of Danny's demands is that he will deal only with another professional negotiator, Chris (Spacey) – whom he scarcely even knows. Chris quickly realises that Danny is depending on his outsider, unaffiliated status – as well as his razor-sharp intuition, sense of fairness, and ability to out-bluff even the mightiest and most secretive bluffer.
Every major move in this film is basically predictable from ten minutes in – including a central plot revelation which is clumsily telegraphed an hour in advance. The actors wheel out their familiar store of mannerisms: Jackson's fast-talking, wild-eyed, righteous anger counterposed to Spacey's cool containment and easy charm.
Director F. Gary Gray – who made such an arresting, off-beat debut with Friday (1995) – can offer only an overlong, colourless, by-the-numbers tread.
All throughout The Negotiator, one longs for a surprising, outrageous or risky twist. But, right down the line, Gray plays it far safer than either of his main characters. While convincing his over-trusting wife, Karen (Regina Taylor), that he has reformed since his wicked, reckless days, Danny raps: "Crazy's on the bus!" This is one of the few smart lines in a film sadly lacking in craziness of any sort.
© Adrian Martin October 1998