In the 90’s you could actually go to the cinema not knowing what you were going to see. You didn’t have to take out a small mortgage to pay back then so you could risk taking a punt on things. The Negotiator was one such punt. A tight action thriller starring two stars at the peaks of their power, it somehow failed to capture the credit it deserved. So let’s revisit this little beauty nearly twenty years on. And that’s not a request. It’s a demand…
A stylish if ominous intro. Some pictures of cops being buddies, doing shit like getting awards, playing poker, and other cop down-time stuff. It’s played to Craig Armstrong’s “Rise“, an electronic and symphonic mutant that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bourne movie. While not as devilishly inventive as a David Fincher intro, it’s high quality A-grade material that establishes that these guys are all tight.
Samuel L. Jackson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) is Danny Roman, a negotiator for the Chicago police. He’s ex-army, highly trained in weapons, tactics, explosives, and hates dogs. We open with him busy talking down some white trash perp (Omar) who is holding his daughter hostage with a gun to her head. Omar just wants his wife there to see him blow his own brains out. He wants her to think about that when she’s “sucking that fat pricks cock”.
Danny Roman isn’t gonna let that happen though. He’s wearing him down with friendly words pulled from a list compiled by one of his trainees, Farley (the late Stephen Lee – Robocop 2). Stuff like the marines, football etc. Makes you wonder what would be on my list. Schwarzenegger movies and strawberry milkshakes no doubt.
But Roman riles Omar up when he mentions his dog – looks like Farley fucked up the list. Beck (David Morse – The Rock), the hulking SWAT team commander thinks that Roman is losing control over the situation and wants to force the action with a full breach. Roman knows this will end in a bloodbath and wants to go in himself. Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin – LA Confidential) wants Roman to stand down but like a renegade badass he disobeys the order and enters under the guise that the wife is here and he just has to check over the room before she comes in.
This pisses off Beck and the Chief (John Spencer – The Rock), but they have no choice but to play it out now. Danny quickly befriends Omar with a phony story about being in the marines before betraying him; gesturing for a sniper to shoot when he has a clear shot.
It all goes down and no one is hurt (save Omar, der). Danny is a hero but it’s all in a days work. Beck isn’t happy, saying he put everyone’s lives at risk but that’s because he just loves to breach things and kick ass. Talking is for pussies.
Beck is a great character and David Morse plays him really well. You never know if he’s good or not as he’s always looking to pull the trigger. It’s always a case of “is he an honest dude looking to do what he does best, or is he’s some corrupt bastard looking to close the book on the whole escapade?” Solid casting and characterization.
Besides introducing us to all the players, this opening scene also sheds light on the world of professional police negotiations and all that they involve. Yeah, it’s a lot of talking and rapport building & so forth, lots of terminology like HT’s, breaching etc. but there’s also all the cool technical gizmos too. Fiber-optic cameras, little mirrors on sticks, tactical teams, snipers, dudes in command centers wearing massive massive head phones. Remember this is pre-Dre Beats era.
Take note. This is what our main boy Danny Roman is going to come up against in a little over 30 minutes. Sorry for the spoiler.
At the raid afterparty/Chief’s 60th birthday shindig, Danny’s best bud Nate (Paul Guilfoyle – Air Force One) tells him he needs to talk to him all secret like. Nate has been approached by someone who knows about the theft of $2 mil from the cops disability fund. This informant knows who took it too – cops from their own precinct. Nate can’t say who told him but the source is legit and knows what he’s talking about. Niebaum at Internal Affairs is apparently in on it too. They offered to buy out the informant and he said he’d think about it. Danny is on the board for the fund but has heard nothing. Before they can set in motion any kind of plans, they’re interrupted by fellow team member Scott (Dean Norris – Total Recall). They plan to meet up later that night.
Back home Danny gets the normal cop shit from his wife Karen. As usual she don’t understand he’s got shit to do, bad guys to talk down, and little girls to save. She makes him promise to come home every night no matter what he has to do. No more crazy shit. He gives the whole “yeah yeah, no more crazy shit” speech, but we all know he’s going to be balls deep into crazy shit by time this is all over. He gets a message from Nate on his beeper and he heads out to meet his friend.
Nate, waiting in the park, recognizes someone who turns up in the dark. We don’t see who it is but it’s clear he knows him. Whoever it is pulls a gun and executes the unsuspecting guy. The gun and Nate’s beeper is then thrown into the nearby lake. Danny arrives to find his bud dead, followed by the arrival of some cops.
Danny is cut up about his mate getting capped. But when the gun is found it turns out to have been from one of his old collars. Things don’t look too good when you consider he was found stood over the body coupled with his involvement with the fund. He slowly becomes aware that everyone is starting to see him as the prime suspect.
Niebaum (JT Walsh – A Few Good Men) at internal affairs is the chief accuser. Danny knows that this dude is dirty but has no proof. In fact all the evidence points to himself. Frost backs up Danny but it’s a losing cause. After the Feds search his house they find receipts for off shore accounts. Roman protests, claiming it was planted, but no one is listening.
The journos get a hold of the story and things start snowballing. The chief has no choice but to ask for Danny’s piece and shield, at least while the investigation takes place. Both we and Roman know that that isn’t good. Things go from bad to worse when his lawyer recommends that Danny cuts a deal to save his ass. The district attorney figures he’ll get an easy conviction for an apparent corrupt cop and is gunning for the full penalty if found guilty.
The noose tightens, and few options remain for our boy. In the lobby at the department of justice he tells Karen to go and wait for him in the car. Don’t worry though; he’s not going to do anything crazy.
He heads upstairs to Internal Affairs to do something crazy. He walks straight through to Niebaum’s office, busting in on a meeting. He wants to know what’s going on. He wants to know how Niebaum is involved. He wants him to look him in the eye and tell him he’s not involved. Niebaum is blatantly a slippery dude, but maintains his innocence. He has some muscle wrestle Danny out of the office. But in the scuffle a gun is drawn. Thankfully Danny manages to get a hold of it and it suddenly becomes a hostage situation.
They’re gonna stay here until Danny gets answers. They clear the office of all the other cops and IA agents. As they leave Frost appears. The call is out on the radio, and if people were on the fence about Danny being innocent or guilty before, this whole hostage crap has certainly made up their minds. Frost begs Danny to think about Karen. “I am thinking about Karen”. It’s all good though, as Frost raises the ante in terms of hostages. As he cuffs everyone left, the whole squad turn up downstairs to try and diffuse the situation.
We’re introduced to the hostages as Danny fortifies the room. Maggie (Siobhan Fallon – Forest Gump) is Niebaum’s assistant and may have access to some crucial info. We’ve also got Rudy Timmons (Paul Giamatti – Straight outta Compton). He’s a rat for the rat squad.
Another highlight of the movie is how developed even these minor characters are. They each get their little moments, and contribute to the plot. They’re not just flak or faceless bargaining chips. Rudy is the flippant, almost lighter side to Roman’s deadly seriousness, and is perfectly played by Giamatti. His hacking skills and first hand experience (“a friend of mine told me…”) of white collar ciminality proves useful to the story, as does Maggie’s knowledge of Niebaum’s computer systems. Again, Maggie is not just some flower ready to wilt at the first sign of pressure. She’s been mugged twice, once at gun point, and guns don’t scare her (or so she says).
The center of this whole farce is of course Niebaum. He’s a sly devil, in up to his neck and we all know it. JT Walsh mastered these sort of roles, and he’s on form here. He maintains his innocence throughout. Danny attempts to scare him; they’ll be coming, he says. Niebaum’s accomplices, scared shitless Roman will get the truth from him. If they can’t kill Danny, he’ll deffo be the next best thing.
Meanwhile, the entire building is being shut down. We’re treated to a cool montage of choppers, search lights, SWAT teams running around, elevators being locked down, snipers zeroing in. One of the snipers, a tough southern badass called Palermo (Michael Cudlitz – Surrogates) is all about the business – “Frost is inside; if we get the chance we take him out”.
Danny knows their tactics though, and starts blocking off vents to stop their optics. He seals himself off from the outside world, and even Beck has to admit that they’re at the disadvantage. The chief gives Farley the horrible task of negotiating. It’s like hiring Robin to hunt down Batman. But Roman only wants to talk to some dude called Chris Sabian. If he isn’t there in 20 mins, Rudy dies.
Everyone is all “Who the fuck is Chris Sabian”.
Chris Sabian is of course Kevin Spacey (Usual Suspects). He’s busy negotiating a truce between his wife and their daughter (who called his wife fat – what a bitch). Apparently he’s a legend in the police negotiating business, once talking someone down for 55 hours. Personally, I don’t see that as impressive. Surely, talking someone down inside of 2 hours would be better, more efficient, cost effective and just more badass? 55 hours of overtime? Imagine the costs. Plus he never forces action and has enjoyed a zero casualty rate for five years.
But he’s more than 20 minutes away. Farley has to buy some more time. Roman of course plays with him, amused that his student is trying to talk him down. He makes a terrible error by refusing to get a priest for Roman to speak to. It’s understandable because priests are associated with death etc. But Farley has forgot the number one rule – never say no to a hostage taker. Saying no removes options until the only option left is to kill someone.
He takes Farley around the houses with this: “Ever cheat on your wife Farley”….”er…I’ll have to look into that for you”. It gets worse with questions about his sex life, and the ultimate question: “You thought the Last Jedi was good right?”. Everyone in the room is like “ouch”.
Samuel L. Jackson as Danny Roman in hostage taker mode is very reminiscent to Jules from the hotel room scene in Pulp Fiction. SLJ suitably explodes verbally when he needs to. But he can also tone it down and still be menacing. After his little demonstration of negotiating superiority, he reminds everyone that he knows who they are, and what they’re doing, that he once went to one dudes wedding, the other dudes kid’s birthday party and once spit roasted some hooker with another dude. It all hits home pretty solid.
As time ticks down, it looks like Danny is really gonna go over the edge and have to kill Rudy. And he’s ready to. But Sabian arrives and saves the day. Apparently they once met on a scene where Roman pulled rank. Roman gives him his list of demands; his badge, the name of Nate’s killer, who else was involved in the fraud etc. His final demand is to meet Chris, face-to-face.
They meet and Sabian lays it all down. He doesn’t care if Danny is innocent or not. All he cares about is the hostages. Roman admits he only dragged his ass out here because he’s not involved in the setup. He can’t trust any one in his unit, so maybe he can trust a total stranger.
During the conversation Beck chooses to breach. Two SWAT dudes rappel inside. Danny gets the better of one, holding him at gun point. But Palermo has him dead bang in his scope. It’s super tense. He has the shot, and the command….but he can’t pull the trigger. He’s too close to the situation, and hangs up his rifle after being relieved of duty by a suitably pissed Beck.
He’s not as pissed as Sabian though. He can’t believe that these dudes would pull such maverick shit. But Danny Roman is even more pissed than Beck and Sabian! And to prove the point, he drags one of the SWAT guys (Scott) into another room and audibly executes him.
This changes the tone of things. People realize that Roman is serious. The feds arrive, the power gets cut, and Chris has to re-evaluate what he’s been dragged into. Roman is crossing over the edge. But someone is clearly out to get him. Is it Beck, or someone else? The chief says he called for the breach. Is he in on it? It’s gonna be a race against time between Danny squeezing the truth out of Niebaum and the conspirators finally getting inside to finish the job. And what about Chris, does he even care now that Danny Roman has screwed his perfect five year record? Well you’re gonna have to watch to find out.
This was a fave VHS of mine, one which I’ve probably seen a dozen or more times. Story wise it has a lot of elements in play. You’ve got the action set pieces, the who-dunnit mystery, the threat from the unseen bad guys, and the question as to whether or not Danny Roman is really ready to go all the way to clear his name. Despite all this, it never feels clunky or bloated. Director F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen) nicely blends it all together, keeping it moving forward at a good pace. Re-watching it now, you can see a lot of the genre elements at work, and it follows the Save The Cat formula very much, but I’d say this is writer James DeMonaco’s (Assault on Precinct 13 remake) best work.
It provides a really cool glimpse into a certain type of policing we’ve never really explored before. Hollywood and crime literature are always mining different elements of police work, but I’ve never seen it from this angle. Fair enough, the actual negotiating doesn’t play out probably how your standard hostage situation would (like we see in the beginning). The core crux of the main character’s world being turned on his head is hardly a new one either. But it still offers some nice insights, like all the technical tricks, the lists, the bluffing, the lie detecting etc.
I did find it a bit convenient that Roman is some former badass who just happens to also be this negotiator dude. That kind of shit is par for the course in action cinema though. SLJ is undeniably really good as Danny Roman. You really do feel like his life is being stripped away from him. You can see that he’s knows he’s being boxed into a corner and while what he does is extreme…you just get it man.
With all the accusations and dark stuff swirling around about Spacey at the moment, it’s difficult to find something good to say about the guy. But you can’t deny he’s a top actor. Yeah, chocolate is gonna make you fat, the evil bastard, but it still tastes delicious. It’s one of those situations. He’s almost snakelike here, his intonations, his manner. He’s super diplomatic and smooth talking. Utterly believable.
The rest of the cast are all strong supporting guys you will have seen many times before but maybe can’t put a name to. Gray correctly gives everyone the time needed to establish, and nobody feels like they’re just there to fill screen time or merely expedite the story.
From a production perspective, it looks the business for a relatively cheap ($50 mil) budget. There’s helicopters, SWAT teams, snipers, flash bangs. While not as slick as a Michael Mann movie, the action is well choreographed. It doesn’t ever get super creative in terms of filmmaking – there’s no funky lightning or impressive camera work – but it’s all rock solid fundamentals, utilized perfectly by Gray to tell this story. The music, by understated legend Graeme Revell (The Crow, Pitch Black, Hard Target), functions in a similar way, highlighting the large moments, and drawing out the tense ones. There’s some good swelling music for hero moments etc.
Combined and it all works; you never really know who to trust, with moments where you start questioning Sabian and even Roman. While it feels like I’m shitting over it by saying it isn’t a masterpiece, I can’t emphasize enough how engrossing this movie is. The ending is solid and not predictable, and while I do think the film loses a bit of steam when they SPOILER leave the office building, the end isn’t too far off.
Inexplicably this movie was a bit of a box office bomb. That’s despite the positive reviews, the strong cast and the able direction. I remember them doing loads of media and publicity, with both actors on British breakfast shows and the like. While Jackson was making loads of movies at the time, he was riding high with the likes of Jackie Brown, Die Hard With A Vengeance and had Pulp Fiction still in the rear-view mirror. Likewise, Kevin Spacey was the hot potato, just coming off of LA Confidential, Seven and Usual Suspects. I don’t understand why this film didn’t get the traction it deserved.
One thing I read a while back was that this was one of the first (if not the first) big budget action movie directed by an African American. While I can’t corroborate this, I also can’t think of anything made before on this sort of scale. Considering this was 1998, not that long ago really, that’s really kind of fucking embarrassing. Thankfully, Gray went on to continue a brilliant career in Hollywood. The Negotiator may be a blip for him now compared to the likes of Straight Outta Compton or the last Fast & The Furious movie, but hell it’s worth a revisit. Get it watched.