Talking Down

Do we really need to see the great Kevin Spacey fuming and fussing in one of those we-do-things-my-way-or-we-don't-do-them-at-all roles? In The Negotiator he plays Chris Sabian, an expert hostage negotiator for the Chicago police, whose job it is to talk down Samuel L. Jackson's Danny Roman, another expert police hostage negotiator. Roman has taken a group hostage in a flamboyant attempt to buy time and clear himself of phony murder and embezzlement charges. The premise is just loopy enough to have worked as good, trashy entertainment. It's like that old MAD magazine feature "Spy vs. Spy" -- Negotiator vs. Negotiator.

But instead of the cat-and-mouse machinations and psyche-outs one might rightly expect from this high concept, we're stuck with a lot of sub-Die Hard theatrics and stinko plotting. This is the kind of movie where we see a murder about to happen on screen and then we hear the gunshot. We're meant to think a killing really took place, even though we didn't actually see it. But are even movie critics dumb enough to buy this? And this particular incident is central to the story.

One reason summertime is a silly season for moviegoing is because -- even more than the rest of the year, if that's possible -- Hollywood showcases actors one wants to see in roles they clearly don't care to play (except for the moolah). Last summer we had, for example, Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche dodging lava in Volcano. So far this summer there's been Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman gamely trying for credibility in Deep Impact; Godzilla, with Matthew Broderick gamely losing all credibility; and Michael Bay's atrocious Armageddon, with the likes of Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton gamely attempting seriousness while on full-time asteroid watch.

Obviously the mass audience for these films isn't going for great performances, and sometimes it's fun to watch a wonderful actor let off some high-priced steam instead of always reaching for the Oscar. But that doesn't mean there still isn't something a little crazy-making about the summer syndrome. I mean, some of us still haven't fully recovered from Michael Bay's previous movie, The Rock (1996), with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery valiantly (and, against all odds, successfully) rising through sheer force of talent above that film's voluptuous clatter.

The Negotiator begins with the unbuyable notion that Roman, whom we first see risking his life in a hostage situation to save a little girl, has no real friends in his entire Chicago police precinct. No matter that he also has saved the lives of many of his fellow officers. All goodwill flies out the window when he's accused of murdering his partner and bilking the police pension fund. So he takes a group of cops hostage in a skyscraper: the Internal Affairs chief (the late J.T. Walsh), who may be framing him; several of the chief's associates (Siobhan Fallon and an amusingly over-the-top Paul Giamatti); and a police commander (Ron Rifkin). That's when Sabian is brought in with a Mighty Mouse flourish to save the day. Roman, you see, doesn't want to negotiate with just any old doofus. He wants the best -- or at least the second-best.

If this film -- directed by F. Gary Gray and scripted by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox -- actually got into the psychological entanglements of hostage negotiations, it might have held us with its novelty. But beyond a few primer-book examples, we never get any insight into how these guys operate. A great hostage negotiator must be an intricate mix of psychiatrist, seducer, and cad, with lightning-fast intuitions and cast-iron balls. It's a sentimental notion in this film that Sabian, who will do whatever it takes to save Roman's hostages, ends up joining Roman's crusade for truth.

It's also a bit much to ask us to join in that crusade after we've seen Roman do creepo stuff, like sacrifice himself up to SWAT choppers while hollering, "You want my blood? Take my blood!" Roman is supposed to be enraged by his own martyrdom, but he's so dangerously out of control that you sort of sympathize with all the (supposed) bad guys who want to take him down. There's a kernel of a good idea in this material: A good man becomes the monster he has spent his whole professional life combating. But Roman's monstrousness is just for show. He's really a puddy tat, with an adoring wife (Regina Taylor) who gently scolds him for his "crazy shit."

Although there is nothing overtly race-specific about The Negotiator, it's difficult to avoid the sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers are framing Roman's victimization as some kind of racist plot. Virtually none of his associates or superiors is African American, and their instant disbelief of his innocence has all the trappings of a paranoid racist fantasy. Will no one believe this black man? The scene with Roman in his skyscraper aerie offering himself up to the buzzing, blasting SWAT choppers is as loony as anything in King Kong. Except it's played straight -- for that extra measure of righteousness. This movie needs a cold shower.

The Negotiator.
Directed by F. Gary Gray. Written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ron Rifkin, J.T. Walsh, and Paul Giamatti.

 
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