Somehow, this one escaped me. I had never seen it until this review, and I didn't know what I had missed. The 1998 crime thriller "The Negotiator" features first-rate actors in Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey and a plot that may lack a certain degree of common sense but makes up for it with plenty of excitement and suspense. Not a bad deal and a clear winner for anyone who'd like to see a variation on the old cops-and-robbers theme.
Jackson plays Chicago Police Lieutenant Danny Roman, one of the city's two best hostage negotiators. He's very good at his job, but he's prone to take chances, preferring to do things his way rather than always following the book, even to risking his own life. For that reason, no matter how heroic his actions, his fellow cops don't always quite trust his behavior.
After establishing Roman's character, we get to the crux of the plot: We learn that somebody's stealing money from the police department's disability fund, stealing to the tune of over two million dollars. Worse, according to Roman's partner who is secretly investigating the crime, it's people within the police force itself who are committing the thefts. But Roman's partner can't go to Internal Affairs about it because he doesn't trust them, either. So he hints to Roman about his suspicions one evening and says he'll explain all he knows about the situation the next day. But the next day somebody murders him, and the killer appears to frame Roman for the deed.
Suddenly, Danny Roman finds all of his friends turning against him. Maybe he really did it; we don't know for sure. The evidence looks incriminating. When the police come to get him and even his lawyer doesn't believe in his innocence, Roman recognizes that nobody is going to help him but himself. Consequently, he does the only thing he knows how to do: He fights back. He walks into the office of Internal Affairs, takes four people hostage at gunpoint, and locks them all in the room. His demand: The police will find his ex-partner's real killer within eight hours, or he'll start shooting hostages.
So, it's a cops-and-robbers film with a couple of nifty twists: The first is that the alleged bad guy is a cop and the supposed good guys may be thieves and murderers. Now, here's the second twist: Roman also demands that the police bring in the city's other best hostage negotiator, Lt. Chris Sabian (Spacey), to work with him. Why Sabian? Because Sabian doesn't operate out of Roman's precinct, and Roman doesn't actually know him except by reputation; therefore, Sabian is one of the few people in the city Roman figures he can trust.
From this point on, the story becomes a cat-and-mouse game between Roman and the entire Chicago police force, plus the FBI, who enter the case because for some reason the Internal Affairs office is in a Federal Building.
But can Roman really trust Sabian? And what about those old "friends" who are now out to get him, dead or alive? Jackson and Spacey are superb as characters who are respectful rivals, genuinely honest, confident, smart, and clever. Yet the supporting cast are equally up the task. Playing Roman's hostages are Ron Rifkin as Commander Grant Frost, Roman's old boss; the late, great J.T. Walsh as Inspector Niebaum, the slimy head of Internal Affairs; Siobhan Fallon as Maggie, Niebaum's assistant; and Paul Giamatti as Rudy Timmons, a former crook, now a wimpy informant working for the police. Outside the hostage room, we have David Morse as Commander Beck, a tough, thorough, by-the-book cop who is wholly unsympathetic to Roman's predicament; John Spencer as Chief Al Travis, another of Roman's bosses; and Regina Taylor as Karen Roman, Danny's devoted wife. It's a great ensemble cast, working flawlessly together in every scene.
Most important, though, is F. Gary Gray ("Friday," "A Man Apart," "The Italian Job," "Law Abiding Citizen"), whose direction moves the film along with clockwork precision, never allowing the tension to flag for a second. Gray begins building the pressure in the opening scene, develops it slowly at first, and then increases it to nerve-shattering dimensions by the show's end. Thanks to the tempo, a show that could simply have been corny turns into a genuine, edge-of-your-seat mystery.
Naturally, you have to get by several hurdles in order to suspend your disbelief: You first have to accept the possibility of such an elaborate frame-up as the one against Roman. Next, you have to accept the far-fetched notion that Roman would or could take people hostage in order to prove his innocence. And, lastly, you have to accept the inflated gunfights and action sequences that ensue. But this is a thriller, after all, and these are hurdles that all of us who enjoy the genre have come to expect. Besides, in director Gray's hands, things move at such a breakneck pace, we hardly notice the inconsistencies in the story.
So, who are Danny's real friends and who are his decided enemies? Whom can anybody trust? "The Negotiator," a reference, by the way, to both Roman and Sabian, is a tense, exciting, suspenseful crime drama, which only gets more tense, exciting, and suspenseful as it progresses. I'm sorry I missed this film when it first came out, but I'm glad Warner Bros. have given all of us another chance to catch it on disc.
WB's video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the film on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition. About the only things one can fault are no doubt inherent to the original print; namely, much of the time the image looks slightly soft and the colors slightly subdued. But since this is a police action tale, I'm sure that's exactly the look the filmmakers intended. That quibble aside, the transfer replicates the movie's 2.40:1 aspect ratio pretty well, with a clean image throughout, solid black levels, and good inner detailing.
The sound is probably a tad more impressive than the picture quality, especially if you're able to play back the lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track rather than the regular Dolby Digital. There's a fine dynamic impact, a wide range, and an excellent use of the surrounds. You'll find not only a pleasant musical-ambient bloom in the rear and side speakers but explosions, fires, and gunshots ring with authority, and, of course, there are the helicopters. There are always helicopters.
It's a shame there aren't more extras on the disc, but maybe when the filmmakers were shooting it, they didn't know it would turn out as well as it did so didn't prepare a lot of behind-the-scenes material. Anyway, the two main bonus items are a pair of featurettes. The first is "The 11th Hour: Stories from Real Negotiators," about seven minutes with a real-life L.A. police hostage negotiator. The second item is a making-of featurette called "On Location: Why Chicago?" that lasts about sixteen minutes and includes comments from the director, the producer, and the production designer.
The extras conclude with a generous thirty-nine scene selections; pop-up menus; English, French, Spanish, and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Negotiator" is a topflight thriller that pits a pair of top-notch actors in two challenging roles against and in some cases for one another. The tension builds incrementally, then escalates faster and faster until you're biting your nails. Fun stuff.