In “The Negotiator,” Samuel L. Jackson has what is probably his juiciest role since “Pulp Fiction” as Danny Roman, a hostage negotiator with the Chicago police force who can outmaneuver the most volatile spur-of-the-moment abductors. Danny is fearless; he’ll stare directly down the barrel of a maniac’s gun if that’s what it takes to disarm a situation. His true weapon, however, is that he’s a master of the rules of engagement–a virtuoso of psychological gamesmanship. He knows how to stroke and placate, to break down a criminal’s defenses and win his trust through poker-faced deception.
Interviewed on the nightly news after a daring rescue, Danny comes off like the star athlete of the SWAT team (he speaks coyly about teamwork but grabs all the credit anyway). He’s about to be undermined, though, by his nose for truth. When Danny’s partner uncovers a conspiracy to rip off the police-pension fund, he gets shot to death, and Danny is framed for the murder. Destined, it appears, for jail, he bursts into the office of the Internal Affairs chief (J.T. Walsh) he believes masterminded the plot and ends up taking him hostage, along with the chief’s assistant and a couple of bystanders. The tables are turned; the negotiator is now hostage taker. But he’s still in control. Demanding a negotiator of his own, a distant colleague named Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), whom he thinks he already has psyched out (actually, Sabian is as wily as he is), Danny attempts to use the hair-trigger manipulations of a hostage crisis to smoke out the real killer.
Directed by the 28-year-old F. Gary Gray, who made the vividly scruffy inner-city fables “Friday” (1995) and “Set It Off” (1996), “The Negotiator” is a clever B-movie synthesis of “The Fugitive,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “Die Hard.” I call it a B movie because the characters don’t have much texture; they’re all but defined by the pressure-cooker situation in which they find themselves. Watching Danny rattle and improvise, we never feel, as we did with Al Pacino’s Sonny in “Dog Day Afternoon,” that we’re witnessing the fraught climax to an already messy and tangled existence. Nevertheless, “The Negotiator,” once it gets going (there’s a rather lengthy prosaic setup), is a satisfyingly tense and booby-trapped thriller about the meeting of two relentless minds.
The two actors are as focused as chess wizards, so it’s no surprise that the film’s tensions pop out through its sideline characters. Paul Giamatti, as a credit-card fraud artist who is one of the hostages, has the gnashing comic goofiness of a sleazy gopher. Here, as in his great Pig Vomit turn in “Private Parts,” he advances a new screen type: the cussed, let-it-all-hang-out nerd. And the late J.T. Walsh, in his penultimate film role, shows yet again why he was such a peerless character actor. As the devious, squirmy Niebaum, he seems to be basting in corruption, anxiety, and contempt. Just about everyone in “The Negotiator” is either blowing off steam or holding it in, and that’s the movie’s chief pleasure. The action is really a pipeline into audience fantasies — of restraint and release, of hot-blooded aggression made cool.