No dice

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| "The Negotiator" slogs on for two hours and 20 minutes, and there's hardly a real laugh or a genuine thrill in it. The director, F. Gary Gray (whose name has, I'm sure, brought misery to dyslexic movie fans everywhere), can't send his characters to a new location without showing them getting in their cars and driving there. He goes about the mechanics of a big-budget action movie with grim, plodding purposefulness: The movie is big on knit brows and set jaws and long, sullen close-ups of the almost exclusively male cast. Considering that at the head of that cast are Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, it's a pity Gray appears to know nothing about directing actors or clarifying characters' motives. His direction is so incompetent that at one point, a character even has a flashback to a murder that he was not present to see committed. That moment might have worked had the Amazing Kreskin been available for the part. Otherwise, "The Negotiator" may be big and noisy enough to get by, but it doesn't even provide the sheer, visceral dumbness that is sometimes the only thing that gets you through an action movie.

Jackson plays a Chicago police lieutenant who's an expert at hostage negotiations. He learns from his partner (Paul Guilfoyle) that someone in the department is defrauding the pension fund. When his partner ends up dead and the evidence suddenly points to him, Jackson turns the tables on his colleagues by taking a group of hostages that includes the Internal Affairs officer (J.T. Walsh) who may be setting him up. Jackson's aim is to ferret out the truth before giving up his hostages. Since his colleagues are likely involved, he refuses to speak to anyone but Spacey, an ace negotiator from another precinct.

That's not a bad premise for a thriller. And since Spacey's character doesn't know whether or not Jackson is innocent, there's built-in dramatic tension between the two. But instead of gaining dramatic momentum, their relationship proceeds in herky-jerky stops and starts. Gray tries to build suspense by keeping us uncertain as to whether Jackson has really gone over the edge or is merely faking it for the benefit of the cops gathered outside the building where he's holed up. Trouble is, if we don't know his state of mind, it gets in the way of our identification with the character and short-circuits our sympathy for him. I can't point to anything that Jackson does wrong here. He's believable as a guy whose ability to control the most potentially volatile of situations is put to an excruciating test. But the failure to clarify his motives keeps us at a remove.

Spacey, who has the weirdest, most charismatic cat-who-swallowed-the-canary talent in the movies, has it a little bit better. While other actors rant and rave, he stands calmly regarding them, a slight smile on his face as if he's possessed of some information that, as soon as he reveals it, will make them out to be asses. (Remember the way he delivers the line "She is Lana Turner" in "L.A. Confidential.") He gets to indulge some of that talent here while the police hotheads around him are pressing him to give the shoot-to-kill order. Spacey's best scene is his first, where he tries to act stern with his little girl while he's unable to conceal how amused he is by her misbehavior. As with Jackson, nothing he does is bad -- he just doesn't get to do much. Establishing a relationship between two characters who spend most of the movie communicating by phone or walkie-talkie is tricky. But it's not impossible. Think of the scenes between Bruce Willis and Reginald Valjean in "Die Hard." Actually, you may think of "Die Hard" more than once watching "The Negotiator" (the setup of a cop holding out in a besieged building), but it will likely only make you grateful for John McTiernan's efficiency in that film.

The supporting cast is populated by proficient scenery chewers like Ron Rifkin and David Morse (even Morse's haircut chews the scenery). There are a few bright spots. As Jackson's wife, Regina Taylor doesn't get to do much either, but her presence here is especially welcome because she's one of those actors who seems incapable of being less than a fully believable character. She and Jackson have a nice, easy rapport; I was sorry they didn't get to pitch woo in a few more scenes. Character actor Paul Giamatti turns up as a police snitch. Giamatti has been in "Donnie Brasco" and "Private Parts," though he's probably best known to moviegoers as the hotel employee with whom Julia Roberts shares a surreptitious cigarette in "My Best Friend's Wedding." Popeyed and doughy-faced, Giamatti's scenes bring the movie its only touches of lightness.

The nicest surprise, though, is the late J.T. Walsh, not so much for his performance as merely for his presence. Shortly before Walsh's sudden death early this year, Greil Marcus, in the New York Times, called Walsh "the canniest and most invisible actor of the last decade," a man whose every role "came through a haze of blandness." Marcus went on, "What makes Mr. Walsh such an uncanny presence on screen ... is that while the blandness of his characters may be a disguise, it can be far more believable than whatever evil it is apparently meant to hide." In this swan song, Walsh is -- once again -- a man whose baldfaced denials seem more reasonable than the truth. This time, though, he's not invisible. Knowing this role is his curtain call, you savor Walsh's insidious blandness, the moral sleight of hand he's deployed in movie after movie. I'd like to imagine him out of character having a good laugh somewhere, knowing that he's put one over on us for one last time.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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