Tuesday 17 June 2008

The Negotiator (1998)

Tom Bower is one of those actors that everyone recognises but nobody knows. In a way it's a serious compliment: he's instantly recognisable as a powerful supporting actor but nobody knows his name. Here he opens the film as an ex-Marine who is holding his daughter hostage with a shotgun at her head. The negotiator of the title, Lt Danny Roman, gets her out alive. Soon thereafter Roman's partner, Nathan Roenick, is shot dead in a park and Roman is the first and only suspect on the list.

Someone has been embezzling the disability fund, Roenick's on his trail and his informant reckons that it's cops, even internal affairs, that are doing the embezzling. Roman is on the funds committee, is found at the scene and the gun used was the only one of three involved on a previous case that Roman didn't recover. What's more, offshore bank account statements are found in Roman's house. The implication though is that Roman is a good guy and he's being set up. Roenick is played by Paul Guilfoyle, the cop in CSI, and that makes two heavyweight supporting actors in the first ten minutes who have small parts and aren't even credited. That's a heck of a way to start.

Well Danny Roman is played by Samuel L Jackson and it would seem that he's one of the very best negotiators in the business. Needless to say he's pissed at the fact that he's about to be arrested for the murder of his partner and best friend and he goes in to Internal Affairs to confront the people he feels are doing this to him. Circumstances quickly turn into a hostage situation, with the negotiator as the hostage taker. He wants justice and he's the least likely man anyone could ever talk out of it. He has some major hostages: an internal affairs agent played by J T Walsh; Siobhan Fallon as his assistant; Paul Giamatti as a rat; and Ron Rifkin as Roman's own boss.

The one thing he asks for is to talk to Chris Sabian, another negotiator that he knows only by reputation because he doesn't know which of his friends he can trust, and Sabian is played by Kevin Spacey. As he proved in a number of films, not least Se7en and K-Pax, Spacey is able to say anything he damn well pleases and seem believable if not downright angelic while he's lying at you. His casting decision is no surprise whatsoever and it's also no surprise that he's very good at what he does. This becomes a very clever cat and mouse game with a lot of factors in play all at once.

F Gary Gray directed (the F is for Felix, hence F Gary), early in his career while he was still known as a hip hop video director. However this film sure goes a long way to explain why he got given the chance to remake The Italian Job. The writers are James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, but I'm not up on too many writers. DeMonaco had only two writing credits before this one, but I've seen some of what he's done since. He'll get his first chance in the directorial chair this year, with Staten Island, currently in post-production. Fox is even greener, with precisely nothing before this one and very little since. I wonder why. Between them they fashioned a film that is way more talky than the standard action film but way more action filled than the standard drama. I like that balance.

While the script shines, it's hard to focus away from Samuel L Jackson and Kevin Spacey though, with able support from David Morse, J T Walsh and others. J T Walsh was in the last year of his career, in which he died of a heart attack in February. No less than five films released soon afterwards were dedicated to his memory, including this one, and in an even more telling tribute, Jack Nicholson dedicated his Oscar win for As Good as It Gets to Walsh too. I've seen a lot of his films over the years, and he was pretty prolific for someone with only a sixteen year career. He was always memorable and fun to watch, even if he was usually the bad guy.

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