I worship at the feet of Kevin Spacey, god of acting, now more than ever after sitting through The Negotiator. Directed by F. Gary Gray — who, not surprisingly, is a veteran director of music videos — The Negotiator is a frenetic, incohesive, pumped-up amalgam of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and The Fugitive, without the charm or suspense of any of them. Spacey is the only thing that holds it all together.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson), Chicago police officer, starts getting uneasy when his partner tells him about an ongoing investigation into fraud involving their precinct’s pension fund — crimes and cover-ups that involve lots of cops they know as well as Internal Affairs officers, none of whom Roman’s partner will name. When his partner is murdered, Roman finds himself being framed for the fraud and the murder. Not knowing who to trust, and desperate for a way to extricate himself from this mess and prove his innocence, Roman, on the spur of the moment, takes a group of hostages at the headquarters of Internal Affairs, among them an IAD honcho (J.T. Walsh) whom Roman is convinced is involved.
Unfortunately, The Negotiator plays its hand right from the beginning. We know Roman is innocent — we witnessed the murder and know he didn’t do it — so it becomes impossible to believe he will carry out any of the threats he makes against his hostages (which would erase his innocence). Roman trusses up a hostage and takes him behind a closed door — a shot follows. It’s hard to be surprised much later in the film when it is “revealed” that the hostage is still alive.
Worse, there’s no advance warning that Roman is volatile enough to resort to such drastic action as taking hostages. So Jackson — a fine actor — has no choice but to go over the top, to force a transformation from an ordinary man being pushed to his limits to a bug-eyed, screaming maniac in attempt to make us believe that he might actually be crazy enough to shoot a hostage. It doesn’t work.
Trying to bring Roman out is a crew of ordinary cops and brass — his friends and coworkers — some of whom, we are told, are involved in the fraud and murder. And the casting gives it away: John Spencer, Walsh, Ron Rifkin, David Morse — all fall on the side of the good guy/bad guy line exactly where you’d expect, exactly where you’ve seen them fall in a dozen other movies.
Ah, but Spacey. Kevin Spacey is Chris Sabien, the only hostage negotiator Roman will talk to, and Spacey makes him The Negotiator‘s calm center — the movie orbits around his gravitational pull. When every other actor around him is yelling and swearing and sweating, Spacey mesmerizes you with his placid, quiet, intelligent face — your gaze can’t help but be drawn to him on the screen. He saves his raised voice for moments of maximum effect; when he swears — which is rarely — it shocks; when he makes a threat, you believe it. And he creates the film’s only hint of suspense. There comes a moment at the end of the movie when, with a single gunshot and a tilt of his head and a sudden hard glint in his eye, Spacey jolts you, makes you question everything that’s come before, makes you wonder which side he’s on.
For a split second, it’s taste of pure movie joy. And the only one to be found here.