In The Negotiator, Samuel Jackson is Danny Roman, a near-legendary hostage negotiator with the Chicago Police Department. As we all know, hostage negotiators are mostly concerned with getting the hostages out safe and sound, but Roman has a Dirty Harry streak in him. Rather than calm things down, he will sometimes rev things up--force the issue a little. Which makes Jackson the perfect actor to play him, since revving things up is one of Jackson's specialties. Long before quoting the Book of Isaiah in Pulp Fiction, Jackson was bringing an Old Testament fervor to his roles. Even in repose, he seems to radiate fire and brimstone. During The Negotiator, he's rarely in repose. The movie opens with a guy holding a shotgun to a little girl's head, and it's uphill--or should I say downhill?--from there. Roman defuses the situation but soon finds himself in a situation of his own. It seems that someone has been ripping off the policemen's pension fund. Roman finds out about this from his partner, who's swiftly murdered. Worse, Roman winds up getting framed for both the embezzlement and the murder. What's a hotheaded hostage negotiator to do? Simple: Take some hostages. Roman takes four, including the Internal Affairs cop (J.T. Walsh) who he thinks is behind it all. And the audience settles in for a Dog Day Afternoon. Alas, director F. Gary Gray has something a little more high-concept in mind. As Roman is customizing his new digs on the 20th floor of the Internal Affairs Division's riverfront headquarters, Kevin Spacey's Chris Sabian shows up for work. Sabian's a...hostage negotiator. In most other ways, however, he and Roman--not to mention Spacey and Jackson--are as different as night and day. Roman's a hothead, whereas Sabian's blood runs a little cold. Most of the fun in The Negotiator comes from the game of cat-and-mouse between negotiator and negotiatee, so that we finally wonder which one of them the movie's named after. The rest of the fun comes from the game of cat-and-mouse between Jackson and Spacey, with Jackson chewing up scenery like it was so much kitty chow and Spacey hoarding the crumbs that fall to the floor. It was a great idea to pit these two actors against each other, but I'm sorry to report that 1) they rarely share a scene, except by talking on the phone, and 2) even when they do share a scene, the writing's just not there.
What's needed is a true face-off, as in Face/Off. Instead, The Negotiator is closer to Brain/Off, which is what happens to our brains about halfway through. Up to that point, Roman has been anticipating Sabian's every move, and that gives the movie an intellectual charge. Then Sabian suddenly reverses field--starts doing the opposite of what a hostage negotiator is supposed to do--and the strategy is so successful, you'd think Roman had been hit over the head with a hammer. To cover its mistakes, the movie literally brings in a SWAT team. And why shouldn't it? What was supposed to be a battle of wits has become a battle of nitwits.