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Review: 'The Negotiator'

August 05, 1998

Jason MyersBy JASON MYERS

In "The Negotiator," director F. Gary Gray (whose distinguished credits include the Restoration comedy "Friday" and the Avant Garde "Set It Off") sets his camera so close to the faces of his actors that you would expect to be able to walk right into their pores.

But this is neither a probing, nor porous film. Rather, Gray establishes a certain opacity so that even jammed right up into the lines of Samuel L. Jackson's face, you cannot really see the lines.

Such are the symmetries of most action pictures, which serve cheap thrills at considerable cost. It takes only five minutes to establish character and story in "The Negotiator," which runs on the tittilating premise that somebody has been stealing money from the disability fund of the Chicago Police Department. I believe that was the scenario for one of Anais Nin's stories.

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Billy Roman (Jackson) is certainly hot and bothered about it, especially when his partner is killed and the department tries to frame him for the murder and embezzlement.

Roman is a hostage negotiator, and within a matter of minutes he has established his own hostage situation; he charges into the office of an Internal Affairs officer (J.T. Walsh) and creates a new level of cinematic irony - the Freudian self-loathing that would cause somebody to initiate a situation they are trained to prevent.

But "The Negotiator," for its skillful intelligence and consummate knowlege of the politesse of hostage situations, is less a cinematic exercise than a calisthenic one. Which is good, for the moviegoer needs to work more than his mind every once in a while, less he fall victim to what Walker Percy characterized as "malaise."

So this movie is worth little more than the price of the ticket and the two hours you spend with it - some movies leave the theater with you, while others stay behind to mop the sticky floors. "The Negotiator" is certainly a janitor, but a friendly one.

After Roman has magnetized enough media and police to fill the better part of the windy city in which this movie is ostensibly set, he demands to speak to fellow negotiator Chris Sabean (Kevin Spacey).

This is logical - who would not want to talk to Kevin Spacey? I think it's time for somebody else's face up on Mount Rushmore, and it might as well be Spacey - he's done more for the country with his performances in "The Usual Suspects" and "L.A. Confidential" than any president has accomplished in the last 40 years. He's a beekeeper who gets honey but also stung, and watching him work is both a sweet and stinging pleasure.

He is one of the few actors around more exciting to watch than Samuel L. Jackson. Unfortunately, Jackson gave a more vivid performance for the three minutes he was in Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" than he does with all his time on screen here.

Maybe it was the faded crimson hair distracting me, but for some reason, I could not connect with his character. I was enthralled in what I was watching, but what I was watching was so predictable and programmatic that there was no choice but to be enthralled. I certainly was not going to be enlightened or transported.

Even within the specificity of the negotiation trade - Roman' s monologues consist mainly of quasi-ironic expostulations on what a negotiator says and what a hostage-taker does - the viewer is not treated to anything he has not seen in a dozen "crooked cops" movies before.

But there is a delicious subtext nestled within the unassuming appearance of this tickling thriller - as Sabean and Roman discuss movies at one point, you get the sense that they are not talking their way around a plot in a summer movie; they're talking about life.

When the camera nudges up to Spacey, you see a pore or two, and that is the mystery of a movie. Each picture is a decision in revealing and concealing, and movies unfold, or, in the case of "The Negotiator," explode into the blossoms of our eyes.

Jason is a 1998 graduate of North Hagerstown High School.

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