Die Hard is a good movie. True, it is formulaic, but it is very well made by someone who really understands the genre. The same can be said of The Negotiator.
For the first fifteen minutes, The Negotiator looks like it’s going to be just another cop movie. Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson), the hero cop, is introduced to us in an unoriginal set piece. A police negotiator, he talks down a potential murder-suicide long enough for snipers to kill the man. The badly-written press fawns over him, the hero of the day. His new wife wants him to be more careful at work.
(Source: Newsweek, August 3, 1988)
His plot device, I mean partner, secretly tells him that he’s heard some crooked cops, in Roman’s own precinct, have been stealing from the disability fund, and that internal affairs is in on it too. Before they can meet again to get specific, his partner is killed, and the murder and corruption are pinned on Roman.
Roman marches into the office of internal affairs, just for a minute, to demand answers. One thing leads to another, and Roman finds himself as a hostage taker. He clears the floor of everyone but his four hostages: two cops, a secretary in internal affairs, and a mediocre crook.
It is here that the movie’s pace picks up. Jackson starts to shine as the smart, determined cop forced into an awkward situation. Roman knows exactly what the officers will try to do, so he has the edge. He plays it up, taking away the “eyes and ears” of the cops, and taunting and abusing the rookie negotiator assigned to the case.
The first thing Roman does is to demand that Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey) be his negotiator. The two haven’t met, but Roman knows Sabian works slow, and he knows he can’t trust anyone in his own precinct.
Spacey is a very good actor with a commanding presence, and when Sabian shows up, his deliberateness and intensity make the local cops shrink. When the locals botch a rescue attempt, his indignation is so fierce that even the audience can’t help but wince.
Sabian is finally given full command of the situation. Roman, relieved, is able to leverage some help from Sabian in finding the real embezzler. Sabian is not Roman’s lapdog, but he is reasonable, and Roman knows how to exploit that. Slowly, with the calculated timing of a good mystery, evidence clearing Roman starts to fall into place. Don’t forget that this is an action movie and not a mystery, so there are lots of bullet-ridden interludes of the dirty cops trying to cover their tracks. But that is not all there is to this movie.
Once it got going, this movie really drew me in. Part of the reason is the great performances by Jackson and Spacey. It’s not much of an ensemble movie, but the stars give standout performances. It’s not the chemistry that the two share on-screen. It’s that each one is such a powerful actor, in a role suited to his particular strength, that one can’t help but be impressed by the acting.
Another part is the well-paced, fleshed-out script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, two relative newcomers. The script is full of detail in the construction of the conflict, the revelation of the real crook, and the resolution of the story. It’s paced like a good mystery, with just enough evidence to keep you interested until the next piece of information falls into place. In addition, the secondary characters are well-chosen, well-written and (relatively) three-dimensional.
Yet another part is the direction by F. Gary Gray, also a relative newcomer. Gray deserves a lot of the credit for the pacing and intensity of the film. In fact, the only filmmaker who’s not a newcomer is the cinematographer, Russell Carpenter, who won an Oscar for Titanic. He gave the film a cohesive, dark look.
As I said, this film is good like Die Hard (or Seven, for that matter): it is well crafted by a director and screenwriters who really know how to work in the genre. It surprised me to learn that they didn’t have more professional experience than they do, but hopefully they have earned themselves some more work after The Negotiator.