The teaming of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, two of the most highly regarded actors around, in perfectly fitting roles that call for a battle of wits and wills, proves to be a shrewd piece of casting, and the best element of "The Negotiator."

The teaming of Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, two of the most highly regarded actors around, in perfectly fitting roles that call for a battle of wits and wills, proves to be a shrewd piece of casting, and the best element of “The Negotiator.” Inspired by a real case involving the St. Louis police, this action thriller gives the familiar premise of a falsely accused man, who’s forced to violate the law in order to prove his innocence, enough twists and turns to make it an engaging experience, though pic is slightly impaired by an overlong, overbaked production. Warners should expect midrange numbers for an entertaining suspenser whose serious issues are likely to appeal to audiences tired of mindless summer fare, though pic may suffer from too much competition in the crowded marketplace.

Working with a high-caliber cast and a bigger budget than in his New Line movies “Friday” and “Set It Off,” helmer F. Gary Gray demonstrates that he can handle a large-scale production with numerous action set pieces. And, as he has shown in his earlier work, Gray is particularly adept at dealing with intense interactions among a small number of characters.

It’s indicative of the current trends in Hollywood moviemaking that what is, at heart, a taut suspense thriller receives overblown treatment with explosions and action sequences that diffuse and sometimes diminish the dramatic core. In other words, the aggressive combo of action and thriller doesn’t always represent a smooth negotiation.

Co-scripted by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, yarn boasts an extremely potent opening, in which Danny Roman (Jackson), top hostage negotiator of the Chicago police, uses his notoriously sharp tongue — and risks his life — to save a little girl held at gunpoint by her demented father, who’s demanding his wife’s return.

Praised by his supervisors and celebrated by the news media for his heroic rescue, Roman goes back to “routine” cop duties with his longtime partner. Karen (Regina Taylor), Roman’s new, loving wife, demands that he “differentiate between crazy and stupid,” and he sheepishly promises to come home every night for dinner.

But just when Roman vows “no more crazy,” his partner is assassinated, minutes before he was supposed to meet Roman to disclose vital info about embezzlement within their department.

Caught at the scene of the crime, Roman becomes prime suspect and is asked by his superior, Chief Al Travis (John Spencer), to relinquish his badge and gun, a humiliation he finds hard to bear.

Since the audience knows that Roman has been framed, and since the intriguing setup occurs in the first reel, it becomes a challenge for the filmmakers to come up with a variegated scheme that will engage the attention for the next two hours. With a few exceptions of ungainly digressions, the challenge is met.

Facing charges of murder and embezzlement, and with his entire world destroyed, Roman resorts to a desperate gambit: He climbs to the 20th floor of the Chicago Internal Affairs Division headquarters and, after a direct confrontation with his nemesis, Inspector Terence Niebaum (J.T. Walsh), he takes Niebaum, two assistants and Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin) as hostages.

For a while, the situation recalls the desperation and pathos that prevailed in “Dog Day Afternoon,” but scripters quickly send the plot in a different direction.

Experiencing a role reversal that now finds him a hostage-taker, Roman needs a sober man who will listen to his plea and demands that Chris Sabian (Spacey), a respected negotiator from another precinct, be brought in to mediate. It takes 40 minutes for Sabian’s grand entrance, but his presence elevates the movie, charging it with electricity.

The film abounds with ironies: When first seen, Sabian fails as a domestic negotiator, incapable of reaching a truce between his wife and his daughter. Pic’s midsection, in which the cool, cerebral Sabian squares off with Roman, his formidable opponent who’s on the edge, is the most interesting.

Employing various strategies, the two men compete for control. It’s to the writers’ credit that they fracture the balance often enough to keep the viewer in suspense.

As the coverup reaches further into the upper echelons, it becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before the two negotiators join forces. But since the outcome is predictable, the real tension resides in disclosing the multilayered conspiracy of greed and corruption.

Like “Face/Off,” which cashed in on the divergent styles of its stars, “The Negotiator” shrewdly exploits not only the central opposing roles, but also the different performance styles of Jackson and Spacey. The two thesps rise to the occasion and, in a series of confrontations, manage to excel without outshining one another.

Embodying the wrongly accused Everyman whose life is thrown out of control, Jackson brings not only the requisite rage and intensity, but also a deep sense of humanity to the part. In delivering cynical lines, Spacey has no rival, using his distinctive voice and rhythm to punctuate his speeches.

The mostly male supporting ensemble is superb, with David Morse as the tough SWAT commander, Rifkin as Roman’s friend and colleague, Walsh as the ambiguous investigator, Spencer as the calmly rational Chief Davis, and Siobahn Fallon and Paul Giamatti as the two civilian assistants, all hitting their marks.

Ace lenser Russell Carpenter and the rest of the technical crew give the film a high sheen, with impressive overhead shots of Chicago and a vibrantly dynamic view of a big city beset by problems.

But, in an effort to qualify the thriller as a big actioner that will please genre aficionados, several sequences are blown out of proportion, distracting attention from the intimate human drama that’s far more riveting than the shootouts. A trimming of 15 minutes, particularly in the second half, would have benefited the movie. “The Negotiator” is dedicated to J.T. Walsh, who died earlier this year.

The Negotiator

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Regency Enterprises presentation of a Mandeville Films/New Regency production, in association with Taurus Films. Produced by David Hoberman, Arnon Milchan. Executive producers, Robert Stone, Webster Stone, David Nicksay. Co-producer, Albert Beveridge. Directed by F. Gary Gray.

Crew

Screenplay, James DeMonaco, Kevin Fox. Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Russell Carpenter; editor, Christian Wagner; music, Graeme Revell; production designer, Holger Gross; art director, Kevin Ishioka; lead set designer, Luis G. Hoyos; set designers, Todd Holland, Richard Reynolds, Barbara-Anne Spencer; set decorator, Richard Goddard; costume designer, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck; sound (Dolby digital), Russell Williams; special effects supervisor, Dan Sudick; stunt coordinator, Joel Kramer; assistant director, Barry Thomas; second unit directors, Phil Pfeiffer, Joel Kramer, David Ellis (L.A.); second unit camera, Gary Capo; casting, David Rubin. Reviewed at the Plaza Theater, L.A., July 18, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

Danny Roman - Samuel L. Jackson Chris Sabian - Kevin Spacey Commander Adam Beck - David Morse Commander Frost - Ron Rifkin Chief Al Travis - John Spencer Terence Niebaum - J.T. Walsh Karen Roman - Regina Taylor Maggie - Siobahn Fallon Rudy - Paul Giamatti

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