Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey are two of the most gifted, versatile, and downright watchable actors in American movies today. They also care about cultivating their skills in different kinds of projects, swinging from Hollywood haymakers to independent projects like "Eve's Bayou" for Jackson and "Glengarry Glen Ross" for Spacey.
They should have stuck with the indies this time around. "The Negotiator" is the sort of big-budget clich festival that lets you imagine what the studio's story conference was like. Nobody but an isolated executive could think the world really needs another yarn about a cop thrown off the force ("I have no choice. Give me your badge and your gun.") because of trumped-up charges ("You just planted that evidence!") that only he can deny and disprove ("They've gotta listen to me! I'll do what I have to until they do!").
The twist is that our unjustly maligned hero (Jackson) is a hostage investigator himself, until the dark day when he's accused of killing an informant to cover up a financial scam. He takes four hostages of his own to get the world's attention, then refuses to talk with anyone but a colleague (Spacey) who's an expert in the same field. With such dynamic actors portraying the dueling negotiators, this element of the tale has strong dramatic possibilities.
But the filmmakers are more interested in gimmicks and gunshots than in the psychological face-off between two brilliant criminologists, and this leaning toward the superficial is what determines the picture's overall direction. As an experienced maker of music videos and multiplex movies, director F. Gary Gray keeps the action popping at a frantic pace for most of its 139 minutes, with help from Christian Adam Wagner, the editor of "Face/Off" and other quick-moving entertainments.
But there's no disguising its lack of originality, conviction, and feeling. Jackson and Spacey should think long and hard before signing up for another potboiler like this.
* Rated R; contains violence, foul language, and homophobia.