Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Negotiator - 1998

To this day, I'm always shocked more people haven't seen "The Negotiator." It stars two incredibly well known actors (Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey), it's well-written, the critics liked it... and yet it didn't make it's money back in theaters here. (The film had a budget of $50 mil, and made about $44.5 mil in US theaters.)

Maybe the film was too smart for people. Maybe it wasn't marketed well. Maybe people were hoping for more action and less tension. Or maybe people are just idiots. I dunno. For whatever reason, "The Negotiator" has flown under the radar for a good long while, and like John Travolta told Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "That's a damn shame."

This is the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make a lot more of - pictures where most of the fireworks come from the actors and the dialogue. And it's not like either of them were unknowns at the time. Spacey had had the one-two punch of "The Usual Suspects" and "Se7en" only two years earlier, and also in 1996 Samuel L. Jackson had made a big splash with "A Time To Kill." This was two titans of actors coming together to butt heads, and audiences just didn't show.

Jackson plays Danny Roman, a hostage negotiator who is accused of embezzling money from police pension funds as well as killing his partner. When everything starts going sideways and the walls start closing in, he finds himself on the other side of the fence - taking hostages. He requests a specific hostage negotiator, Chris Sabian (Spacey), to come in and hear his demands. Sabian doesn't know Roman at all, and so he finds himself wondering why he was asked for specifically.

We've seen hostage situations more times than we can count on film, and so we as an audience have an expectation of how things are going to play out, but we are constantly reminded that Roman has been dealing with hostage situations for a living for some time, and he too knows the rules of the game. Very early on, the relationship is pretty clearly established - Sabian wants to treat Roman like any other hostage taker, except he knows that he can't, which means so many of the habits and skills he's developed over the years just don't apply. And because they each know how hostage situations work, everything's fair game.

"The Negotiator" thrives on the basis of letting two heavyweights just go in swinging at one another. Originally when the movie was being pitched, it was Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Spacey, with Spacey in the hostage taker role. Stallone turned it down, and when he did, Spacey decided he was still interested in it, but wanted the part of Sabian, and Jackson was offered what is, ostensibly, the lead in the movie, which is a smart bit of insight on Spacey's part. The two actors work very well together, and it's my hope we'll see them in another tightly-wound picture like this again.

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