“The perpetrator is an expert marksman. He’s an expert in explosives and tactics. Gentlemen, play this one by the numbers. Maintain your fields of fire… We’re blind and he’s seeing in 20/20… We have not contained him. He’s contained himself.”
“He” is Samuel L Jackson in the 1998 action thriller The Negotiator. Jackson stars as Danny Roman. He’s a Chicago Metro hostage negotiator. As the film opens we get to see him in action saving a little girl from a tight hostage situation. He’s obviously good at his job and he has the respect and admiration of his fellow officers and commanders. Roman’s partner Nathan Roenick (Guilfoyle) has gotten a hot tip from an informant. Someone inside the department has been skimming money from the union’s retirement fund. He’s about to blow the case wide open when he’s killed. Roman discovers his friend and partner just as other cops arrive to see him leaning over the dead body. He becomes the prime suspect not only in his partner’s death but the missing money as well. Someone has gone to great lengths to frame him for the crimes. When evidence of his guilt is found at his house, not even Roman’s friends believe he’s innocent. With everyone turning their backs on him, Roman goes to Inspector Niebaum (Walsh), an internal affairs cop that Roenick mentioned as a part of the embezzlement scam. The confrontation quickly gets out of control, and before anyone knows what’s happened, Roman has taken the internal affairs department hostage. He demands that Lt. Chris Sabian (Spacey), another hostage negotiator that Roman trusts, be put in charge of the operation. Sabian takes over, but he’s dealing with a perp who knows all of the rules of engagement. To make matters worse, the book doesn’t cover this kind of negotiation. Roman isn’t asking for money and a plane full of fuel at the airport. He wants someone to get to the bottom of the frame job, or else.
This tidy little Die Hard in reverse is directed by F. Gary Gray. That’s a family that ran out of letters too early. Gray is best known for bringing us the remake of The Italian Job back in 2003 but has been largely silent most of his career. The Negotiator was really his first big budget feature. The script was fashioned by a couple of guys also with thin resumes, James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox. So if you’re basically a rookie team and getting a big break to produce a major picture, what do you do? You bring in the best people you can find and you let them do their jobs. Whatever else you might say about this trio, that’s exactly what they did here. The result is a strong thriller that really works … except at the box office where it did a poor $40 million. So, it’s a little known film that deserves better. Finally, with this Blu-ray release there’s a chance for that to happen.
Jackson is one of those rare talents that’s capable of carrying a film pretty much on his own. We’ve all sat through examples where he did just that. Fortunately, this is not one of those either. Jackson is provided a very strong supporting cast here that includes a who’s who of the television procedural. These names include: John Spencer (The West Wing/L.A. Law), David Morse (Hack), and Ron Rifkin (Alias/Brothers & Sisters). Add to that a perfectly cast co-lead in Kevin Spacey as his nemesis of sorts, Sabian. But just for good measure someone decided to sprinkle in a few more powerful guest stars like J.T. Walsh, Paul Giamatti, and Michael Cudlitz. Together they form an ensemble that drives the film forward even when Jackson himself isn’t on the screen. While predictable in places, we’re given enough big names that this one is harder than most to pinpoint all of the good guys and all of the bad guys. You’ll guess some, for certain, but I doubt you’ll finger them all before they’re revealed.
The setting for the film works quite well. I called this Die Hard in reverse because it’s the good guy who is holed up in a building and a mix of good and bad guys working their way around the skyscraper trying to get to him. It makes for some adrenalin filled moments of action spaced quite well between moments of discovery or just Jackson doing his thing. You have to give film editor Christian Wagner some serious props for a tightly edited film. There are so many fronts of action going on, and it must have been a heck of a juggling act to cut this thing. Wagner does one of the best editing jobs I’ve seen here. The pacing couldn’t have been better. It all comes together to bring you a solid film that you likely missed at the box office. Catch it now on high definition.
The Negotiator is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is brought to you through a VC-1 codec with an average bit rate of 23 mbps. It’s an upgrade from DVD to be sure, but it’s not as impressive as you might hope for. It could be a coincidence, but I rarely see exceptional VC-1 transfers. Warner Brothers is one of the few studios still using the technology. The lower than optimal bit rate doesn’t help either. Look. The image is fine for the most part, but it never really breaks out. Colors are very natural but little more. Black levels are average at best, providing no real shadow definition and not always ink black. Detail is there, no question. Sharpness is also not an issue. It’s a good image presentation. But, it could have been better. No one is going to be reaching for this disc to show off their system.
The Dolby DigitalHD 5.1 track is better than the image. Surrounds help to create a convincing chaotic atmosphere during the firefights. There are moments the dialog is a bit soft, but those instances are rare enough. The sub response is, at times, quite dynamic. There’s plenty of clarity all the way around. Again, this isn’t going to set any standards, but it does rise to the occasion. Special note should be made of the Graeme Revell score. It does a great job of staying out of the way when it should. It also does a brilliant job of ramping up the action sometimes when there isn’t so much on screen to work with. I could feel my pulse quicken even when nothing was really going on yet. Revell has you in his grip without calling unnecessary attention to himself … exactly what a score should do.
Both features are in standard definition.
The Eleventh Hour – Stories From Real-Life Negotiators: (6:51) The title is a bit misleading as there is only one real-life negotiator here. He’s LAPD Officer Rheingold. He tells a few stories from his job on a hostage negotiation team.
On Location – Why Chicago: (16:28) Director Gray, Producer David Hoberman, and Production Designer Holger Gross answer questions about the production. The location shoots and various set designs are covered here.
As big of a Jackson fan as I am, this one flew under my radar back in 1998. Judging from the box office, I wasn’t alone. In fact the only people who might have been alone were members of the film’s audience. It’s saying something that a film with this kind of cast went by largely unnoticed. That tells me someone botched the marketing campaign. Unfortunately, this release appears to be flying just as low. This is a film you need to check out. It might be in an 11 year slump, but “slumped don’t mean dead”.