The Negotiator (1998) – A Review

Samuel L. Jackson Kevin Spacey The Negotiator 1998 action movie
Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator

Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson face off with hostages, guns, news cameras and a cop conspiracy hanging in the balance.

Danny Roman (Jackson) is a police hostage negotiator accused of corruption and murder. He takes it upon himself to prove his innocence by taking his own hostages in a government building in an attempt to unravel a conspiracy in his department.

When outside negotiator Chris Sabian (Spacey) is tasked with bringing an end to the situation he finds himself not only being up against an adversary who knows all the nifty negotiating tricks, but is also surrounded by a police force who appear to want to silence Roman. Sabain starts to believe perhaps Roman is not crazy and it will be up to the dueling negotiators to somehow work together and find out who the real bad guys are.

It was 1994’s Pulp Fiction that really put Jackson on the map and ever since then he’s been a consistent presence in movies. I don’t think the guy turns down any role.

Back in the 1980’s my humorous observation was that every movie had to have either Michael Caine or Gene Hackman. Those two guys seemed to be churning out acting performances nonstop. Well, Jackson puts both of them combined to shame! I even see him doing commercials for Capital One now.

Samuel L. Jackson J.T. Walsh The Negotiator
Jackson and the charmingly oily J.T. Walsh

I often read how Jackson holds the record for being the actor with the highest grossing film total of all time. That doesn’t seem too hard if you show up in every movie!

After awhile I felt Jackson got extremely over-exposed. Even today I let out a little yawn hearing that he’s going to be in a movie. His participation in a movie doesn’t make me feel like its going to make it any more special. Just the opposite in a lot of cases.

I just get that initial reaction that he’ll probably be doing that ‘Sam Jackson’ persona that he’s become known for and his presence in a movie has become less and less memorable.

I heard a story once that Jackson’s agent had called George Lucas to see if there was a part for his client in his new Star Wars prequels he was about to make. And what do you know, there was! This story has always made me wonder whether that’s how he gets into so many movies. His agent just calls and offers Jackson’s services to every movie in production!

Kevin Spacey The Negotiator
Spacey negotiating

But this was 1998 and despite being around for years Jackson was now freshly discovered by audiences. Teaming him with Spacey, who had just recently impressed everyone in L.A. Confidential, Seven and his Oscar turn in The Usual Suspects, seemed like a very cool idea. This could be an interesting matchup.

And it kinda is. The Negotiator is an entertaining enough suspenser that has a few scenes that give Jackson and Spacey juicy moments to chew on, allow them to engage in some tense conversations and confrontations, all the while being supported by a rich supporting cast.

Jackson, as expected, does his ‘Jackson thing’. He tends to get monotonous after awhile with his ‘find the killer’ fixation and questioning those around him about who set him up. He has a few monologues that appear to be there specifically to invoke his memorable scenes from Pulp Fiction. His “say no” dialogue with an amateur negotiator feels lifted from his ‘say what’ scene in Pulp, but I still think it’s fun.

Spacey has a quiet authority as he tries to maintain control over a police force he can’t trust. He’s also given some showy moments when he has to get forceful with those around him. He’s good, but it’s not as compelling as most of his other performances. For some reason Spacey seems so much more powerful and memorable when he plays bad guys.

By the way, which character do you think the title refers to – Jackson or Spacey? I’ve always struggled with that one. I lean more towards Jackson, but I suppose there really is no wrong answer.

Paul Giamatti Samuel L. Jackson The Negotiator
Giamatti and Jackson

The supporting cast makes things even richer. It’s one of those casts that even casual moviegoers will recognize a lot of them and have that “oh that guy” reaction. David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, J.T. Walsh, Paul Giamatti, they lend support and all effectively do what their roles demand.

I always find it somewhat amusing re-watching action movies in the pre-dawn of the internet age. Way before smartphones, ipads and everyone being much more tech savvy, computers were portrayed in such simplified ways.

For instance, searching around on a computer a big reveal happens. An individuals photo pops up and under their picture in big bold red letters says the word ‘INFORMANT’. It’s not subtle at all. Also the idea that by simply shooting a computer with one bullet eliminates all traces of evidence on it. Ah, things were so innocent back then.

The downside to all this fun is the story itself being rather blah. The conspiracy isn’t that involving and when the final culprits are revealed it’s not very surprising. I doubt had the film starred two other leads – and it lacked the terrific supporting cast – that The Negotiator would have been a very forgettable little thriller. Which, in a way it was always bordering on for me anyway.

Samuel L. Jackson Kevin Spacey The Negotiator

It’s adequately directed and the actors give it their all, but this could have been a really great movie had the script been as special as this cast and premise deserved.

It’s like getting invited to a party from a great pair of hosts. When you get there, you see plenty of interesting guests to mingle with, but unfortunately, it’s in a cramped little room, the food is crap, the music is awful and there’s no trace of booze anywhere and you’re forced to drink tap water.

There’s a lot of potential around for a slamming party, but it just didn’t work out that way. When you got the invite you envisioned a much better experience.


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2 Responses

  1. Capt. Nemo says:

    J.T. Walsh's participation can not be underestimated in this flick.

    He was right on the verge to becoming a full fledged star. Part of the marketing for this movie was to see J.T. Walsh one last time.

    He had died shortly before its release. If you look at movie articles at the time, there were a lot of articles dedicated to him. And I'm sure The Negotiator rode that wave.

    Walsh came to my attention when he played the role of Sgt. Major Dickerson in Good Morning Vietnam. He had such presence and gave a interesting performance for such a one note role.

    He worked steadily as a character actor. And he was starting to get away from bad guy roles in the 90's. Then he had a hot streak with Pleasantville and The Negotiator. The future looked bright and then…

    Life had to prove we were mortal. Sad really. I liked him and I would have liked to have seen one great performance from him. RIP J. T. Walsh.

    Speaking of Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Caine, wouldn't be great if Jackson did a acting "how to" video like Caine did. He'll I'd pay to see that. Lol

  2. Nick H says:

    This movie was an experiment in putting as many scene stealing actors into one movie and seeing what happens. It's a shame there was no room for Bruce Dern in it. It's a film of two halves and unfortunately once Spacey teams up with Jackson the suspense seems to evaporate.

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