negotiator1This week sees the release of Law Abiding Citizen. The story of a man, played by Gerard Butler, who is forced to watch his family murdered. When the District Attorney makes a shady deal with the defendants, Butler takes matters into his own hands.
The director is F. Gary Gray. You may not recognise the name, but he has directed a tense thriller before, again about a man taking justice into his own hands. Starring the then dream partnership of Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, let’s take a look at 1998’s The Negotiator.
As so often happens, there were a couple of movies on the same subject released around the same time, namely hostage negotiators. The other in this case was the Eddie Murphy vehicle, 1997’s Metro. Metro wasn’t very good, but ironically turned out to be, barring Bowfinger, his best movie for years to come.
At the time, the casting of Jackson and Spacey was huge. Jackson was coming off of his seminal Pulp Fiction performance, A Time to Kill (with Spacey), and Jackie Brown. Spacey had put in two amazing performances in two amazing films. His John Doe in Seven, though appearing for less than thirty minutes was mesmerising. And his role as Verbal Kint in the brilliant The Usual Suspects was nothing short of masterful. Two great actors at the top of their game,the upcoming face off was likened to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino squaring off over a cup of coffee in Heat.
The Negotiator starts with Samuel L Jackson’s negotiator, Danny Roman, one of the best in the business. We witness him at work, and discover he is negotiator2very effective, but with a habit of doing crazy things to get the job done. His friend in the force, Nate Roenick (CSI’s Jim Brass) confides in Roman that internal affairs are investigating some cops that are stealing from the police pension fund. He arranges to meet Roman in secret to spill the details, but when Roman arrives, his friend has already been killed. The police turn up, and Roman discovers he has been framed.
He goes to police headquarters, to the office of one of the only men his friend named, Internal Affairs Division’s Inspector Niebaum. His badge already taken, and facing a long prison sentence, jackson finds himself in another hostage situation. This time, however, he’s taken the hostages. He knows the tricks, he can’t be talked down, and surrounded by the cops he called friends, doesn’t know who to trust. With the dirty cops in his unit part of the team trying to get him out, he knows if a breach is ordered he’s a dead man. His first demand? He will only talk to the other great Chicago negotiator, Chris Sabien (Spacey). He tells Sabien he wants him running the operation because when you can’t trust your friends, a stranger is the best friend you’ve got.
negotiator3You can’t really compare this to the face-off in Heat. In Heat, De Niro and Pacino get equal screen time and plenty to do. Here Jackson, as the main protagonist, is running the show from start to finish. Spacey doesn’t turn up until a third of the way through, and though he does assert his authority both as an actor and the character, he isn’t given the meat of Jackson’s character. That said, both performances are great.
We know Jackson for his explosive delivery, but he shows a full range of emotions here. A story that effectively takes place in two rooms, the movie needs the showy performance of Jackson. Spacey, with nowhere near as much to work with, gives a much more nuanced performance, with a complete air of confidence. They are backed up a fine collection of supporting actors. Ron Rifkin, J T Walsh, David Morse, John Spencer (the West Wing’s Leo McGarry), and Paul Giamatti.
The movie itself is actually much better than i remember it. Even at nearly two and a half hours long, it never feels slow, some achievement for a dialogue heavy concept. The plot, whilst never genuinely gripping, manages to keep up the intensity and excitement. A hostage drama in the wrong hands could easily become boring, but a great job is done of keeping it a constantly changing situation. The power changes hands over the course of the movie between Roman, Sabien, and the guilty law enforcers who want to prevent Roman from uncovering the truth. The action, when it comes, is snappy and well put together. And comic relief is generously provided over the course of the siege by the excellent Paul Giamatti, as a small time crook caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Negotiator isn’t a great film, but it is very good. The story twists and conclusion are uninspired, but the performances of Jackson and Spacey, two of the finest actors of their generation elevate the movie above these concerns.
I wasn’t looking forward to Law Abiding Citizen before i watched The Negotiator. I worried that it would be a bit far-fetched and over the top. I’m more confident now i realise it is in safe hands, and i’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out in reviews this coming week.
The Negotiator is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Law Abiding Citizen reaches theatres this Friday 16th October in the US. It will be released in the UK on Friday 27th November.