There’s something a bit cheesy about a studio packaging a routine thriller with great actors; you find yourself compelled to catch a B-movie you wouldn’t bother with if it starred, say, Steven Seagal and Howie Long. The Negotiator, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey — two actors who couldn’t be boring if they were asleep for an entire film — goes a step further: it’s a B-movie you wouldn’t bother with if it starred, say, anyone else. Essentially, the movie is Jackson and Spacey. Take them away and you have an overlong, underplausible hostage drama that might have been done better, and shorter, on any number of TV shows.
Jackson is Danny Roman, a Chicago hostage negotiator framed for the murder of a fellow cop. Enraged and desperate, he storms into the Internal Affairs offices and takes a few hostages of his own — including the IA chief (J.T. Walsh) who might have been in on the frame-up. The first demand Danny makes, and gets, is Chris Sabian (Spacey), a cool-cucumber negotiator who takes quick and quiet control of the situation — despite the itchy trigger fingers of the feds and SWAT team. Danny’s ultimate demand, though, is that the police catch the real murderer.
As efficiently as a big Hollywood movie like this can be done — and director F. Gary Gray does a credible job — a vague feeling of inevitability and boredom may settle into your bones before you even sit down. If this were, say, an intense little art-house film with nobody you’ve ever heard of, the stakes would seem higher and the action more tense precisely because the actors aren’t well-known and can therefore die at any time. For the most part, though, the conclusion of a big-budget movie like The Negotiator is depressingly foregone. Aside from the identity of the killer (and even that’s no big whoop), the script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox has no surprises and no real depths for these great actors to explore.
To praise Jackson and Spacey would be redundant, since they’re good here in the same ways they’ve been great elsewhere (which is a problem in itself). Jackson, a master of blistering rhetoric, has his best scene early on when he’s quizzing an inept negotiator — though it steals not only from a similar hostage dialogue between a psycho kid and a sweaty principal in Stephen King’s novel Rage, but also from Jackson’s own “Say ‘What?’ one more goddamn time, I dare ya” bit in Pulp Fiction. Yet after a while his performance becomes a tad monotonous — for which I blame the script, which seldom gives him anything to play except “Must find the killer.”
Spacey, as always, manages to suggest flashes of private amusement beneath his toneless line readings. But he’s best when that tonelessness also hides dark secrets, and here he’s playing too much of a standard-issue good guy, the negotiator who’ll go out of his way to avoid bloodshed. Kevin Spacey should never be asked to play trustworthy characters. He delivers a perfectly plausible and professional performance, but the only time I really rose to his work was when Sabian first takes command and declares that the only valid orders will now come from him. There’s a quiet authority in his voice that the movie lacks.
One other reason I allowed myself to look forward to The Negotiator was that it was directed by F. Gary Gray, whose 1996 Set It Off was a sleeper hit for a reason: far from being a Waiting to Exhale Meets Thelma & Louise, as it was often advertised, it was a sharp and crackling examination of crime and the poverty-level lives that lead to it. So I left this movie a bit baffled; there doesn’t seem to have been any motivation for Gray to direct it except to prove he can do a big formula thriller. He can, but not that well; the movie wears out its welcome at about the 90-minute mark and still has almost another hour to go.
After some thought, I finally decided that Jackson and Spacey signed onto the project so they’d get to work with each other, and that Gray signed on so he’d get to work with them (who wouldn’t want to?). That’s understandable. What isn’t understandable is how this film, with the talent involved all around, turned out so blah. Or maybe it’s not such a mystery: A boring script filmed by a fine director and great actors is still a boring script.