Superlative acting saves 'Negotiator'

July 31, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Negotiator" is proof that good acting -- make that terrific acting -- can make even the flimsiest story work.

No matter that events move too quickly, characters snap too easily, police work is too shoddy, plot points are grasped too quickly. All is forgiven when you've got actors the caliber of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey up on screen, working at the top of their game. They're both great, and their performances -- combined with the sure-handed, tautly paced direction of F. Gary Gray ("Set It Off") -- allow a lot of sins to be forgiven.

Jackson is Danny Roman, a crack hostage negotiator for the Chicago police department. When his partner, who had just uncovered evidence of an embezzlement scheme involving the department's pension fund, is found murdered, all signs point to Roman as the murderer.

Of course, he's been framed, but try telling that to Inspector Niebaum (the late J.T. Walsh, proving again why he was one of Hollywood's most valuable supporting players), an internal affairs guy who's heard it all before and who may be involved in the embezzlement scheme himself.

So Roman seizes control of the situation, taking Niebaum and three other people hostage and barricading himself inside the internal affairs office on the 20th floor of police headquarters. Promising to kill hostages unless the real murderer is found, Roman throws one more wrench into the works -- the only person he'll talk to is Chris Sabian (Spacey), a negotiator who works in a precinct across town.

Thus begins an intricate game of cat-and-mouse between Roman, who's too familiar with the rules of the hostage negotiation game to fall victim to them, and Sabian, who's determined to defuse the situation and get everyone out alive. That's especially difficult, since some of the cops gathered here are involved in the embezzlement and would like nothing better than to see Roman dead before he can get to the truth.

Jackson, one of Hollywood's most dynamic actors, is in his element here. Explosive and cerebral at the same time, he's a powder keg with the truth as his fuse; the closer he gets to it, the more likely he is to end up dead. Just watching his eyes in this movie is exciting.

Spacey's role is less showy, but he's just as good. It's up to Sabian to keep people from dying in the hail of gunfire his fellow police officers would be glad to provide (especially David Morse as a gung-ho SWAT commander with bullets for brains).

With stars like these, who thinks about plot?

'The Negotiator'

Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey

Directed by F. Gary Gray

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R (violence and language)

Running time: 139 minutes

Sun score: ***

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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