Like a successful hostage negotiation, hostage negotiation dramas tend to follow a set pattern. As such, most hostage films fall into one of two camps: those where you sympathize with the hostage takers (see Dog Day Afternoon, or Cadillac Man), or those in which you’re diametrically opposed to them (such as Die Hard, or any of its clones). The Negotiator tries to have it both ways, with strong actors on either side of the line, and surprisingly is able to pull it off.
Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is one of Chicago’s finest hostage negotiators. Not only does he have an encyclopedic knowledge of the “rules” of negotiation, but he has a quick wit and firm resolve.
However, someone inside the police department is pulling a dangerous scam, and Danny seems like the perfect fall guy. Before he knows it, Danny finds himself charged with a serious crime. To prove his innocence, the negotiator takes his own hostages.
At Danny’s insistence, Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), an unknown negotiator from across town, is brought in to help resolve the situation. But can Danny truly trust this stranger…or will the conspirators continue to weave their deadly web?
Hostage negotiation dramas have lost their luster in recent years. Even the twist of having a hostage-taker who knows the rules is less than fresh. Way back in 1988, Hans Gruber was already using negotiation tactics against the negotiators in Die Hard. However, what works in The Negotiator is not the methods used, but the sheer clash of wills between Jackson and Spacey.
The casting in the central roles couldn’t have been better. Samuel L. Jackson can channel a thinking man’s desperate anger with a single furrow of his brow. Kevin Spacey, on the other hand, displays his icy intensity with cool, calculated precision. Watching the battle of wits between these two men is definitely the high point of the movie.
Ample comic relief is provided by the omnipresent, yet underacknowledged Paul Giamatti. He plays a weaselly con artist/computer hacker who, through no fault of his own, gets taken hostage by Roman. His comic jibes lighten up a few of the film’s more tedious moments.
Several times, the film falls back on a tired crutch wherein control is wrested from the negotiator by an outside force (be they renegade cops, or sinister FBI agents). Despite having been done to death, this meaningless plot device interrupts the best parts of the film, when Jackson and Spacey go mano a mano.
Despite this, The Negotiator still emerges as an exciting thriller, showcasing two very good actors at the top of their form.