F. Gary Gray | 134 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | Germany & USA / English | 15 / R
As premises go, “hostage negotiator turns hostage taker” is a doozy. You can immediately imagine all the drama to be had from pitting The Best Negotiator In The World (because it’s a movie — it’s going to be the best one that goes rogue, isn’t it) against The Second Best Negotiator In The World — he’ll know all the techniques! He’ll… well, mainly the techniques one. But also his colleagues will be working against him — will they be on his side? Or against him? It practically writes itself.
Unsurprisingly, then, The Negotiator does largely trade on all of this stuff. And that’s no bad thing. It struggles a little to set up the idea that such a man would put himself in that position, but once over that hurdle (and, as getting over such hurdles go, it does a bang-up job) it rattles along at a solid thriller pace. Obviously there’s a plot about why Samuel L. Jackson’s Best Negotiator In The World has turned hostage taker — naturally, it’s to do with clearing his name — but that mystery is largely there to service the negotiator-on-negotatior action. The plot also delivers the prerequisite villainous-types-who-are-villains and villainous-types-who-are-actually-good and good-types-who-are-actually-villains pretty much on queue, but still does a good job of making the viewer second guess who’s on which side.
There’s also the thing of seeing how long a film can drag out a hostage situation. Surely not all the investigating can be done from within that one room? No, of course it can’t, and I imagine anyone well enough versed in this kind of thriller will know the structure well enough. For me, speaking structurally, Speed comes to mind: the main thing is the stuff on the bus, but before that it sets up the characters and gets them on the bus, and the third act goes off-bus for a climax. Similarly, The Negotiator‘s first act gives us a day-in-the-life case for maverick negotiator Jackson, before putting him in his predicament; it toddles along, extending the hostage situation part with some tense and/or exciting sequences; and then the third act sees our hero set off to find the proof he needs.
If I’m making The Negotiator sound like a set of stock thriller pieces and familiar tropes, I suppose that’s because it is. Most genre films are, aren’t they? Hence the name. It’s how those elements are leveraged in service of the particular high-concept that matters, and that’s all pulled off suitably well, aided by the acting talents of Jackson and, on the other end of the line, Kevin Spacey. I suppose such familiarity might rob the film of any crossover appeal, but for those who like this kind of movie, this is the kind of movie you’ll like.