Blu-ray Review: The Negotiator (1998)

November on Blu-ray:
WB Action in High Definition

Also Available on DVD

WB's Action Movie Photo Slideshow

F. Gary Gray's 1998 thriller negotiates its way onto disc as part of Warner Brothers Studios' November slate of “High Action in High Definition,” alongside the Blu-ray releases of Michael Mann's phenomenal Heat and the cult classic Logan's Run.

Although as a De Niro and Pacino fan, I can cite scores of dialogue from
Heat verbatim, when the review copy of The Negotiator arrived from the studio, I realized that I hadn't seen it in eleven years. Still, I could vaguely recall hitting the theatre on its opening weekend to see Oscar winner Kevin Spacey and Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson play cops in a standoff simply because of my respect for the actors involved. However, what did echo strongly as soon as I inserted the disc into my player was that my experience at the theatre watching the movie wasn't nearly as memorable as the one prior to its release.

Back in the '90s,
I could've paid rent for the same amount of cash I spent on movie seats in any given month. And for those of you who frequented the multiplex as well, more than likely you remember that in the late '90s, trailers could be broken into two specific types overall. The first style employed extremely similar pop music, especially Third Eye Blind's “Semi Charmed Life” or “Dreams” by The Cranberries for comedies. In stark contrast and for more serious fare, narration filled the trailer, providing us with interchangeable variations of the phrase “In a world where _____ is the way of life, one man (or ___) must choose_____.”

Needless to say, the preview for Gray's cop movie definitely wasn't a candidate for Adult Contemporary Top 40 FM so the cliched hyper-masculine and tagline happy approach was utilized, which you can witness as a retro Blu-ray extra. Yet The Negotiator marked the first time that I uncovered just how much a trailer can single-handedly make or break a movie before it even opens. Whether it's by switching the tone so that you go in expecting one thing when it's really another (like assuming some of Laura Linney's dysfunctional family films are comedies) or realizing that all of the best moments were contained in the succinct teaser for actual comedies, The Negotiator opened my eyes to an emerging problem created by marketers desperate to get our money.

In a nutshell, that problem was giving us "way too much information." With the single exception of actually telling us who our main villain was going to be since the movie centering on Samuel L. Jackson's framed cop involves a mystery, The Negotiator's trailer literally gave away every single plot twist that the 139 minute movie would contain in roughly three minutes flat.

To this end it reveals not just one but three twists too many chronicling hostage negotiator Jackson's shocking decision that the only way to find Chicago's crooked cops who'd set him up and clear his name is to hold a group of key individuals hostage as he goes head-to-head with his intellectual equal in the form of his chosen negotiator, Kevin Spacey. A basic premise is one thing but the last few shots of the trailer bring you right into the concluding moments of the movie and the relationships that have evolved throughout.

And it's a damn shame too because the first two acts of the film are top notch and make for an emotionally riveting update on the same antihero cop movies of the 1970s including The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico that no doubt inspired the director. Moreover Gray, working with the highest budget ever given to an African-American director at the time, uses his artistic eye to construct a beautiful, foreboding, claustrophobic, yet refreshingly unique police hostage thriller. Likewise, it's augmented by transferring the action of the script from James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox to the unique setting of Chicago.

Furthermore, by refusing to simply fall back on the sheer power of the two Oscar caliber leads as other directors have done with Spacey and Jackson before, you realize just how much the Law Abiding Citizen, Set it Off, and The Italian Job helmer brought to the movie.

As I've noted in other reviews, Kevin Spacey is so gifted with his voice that he could keep us engaged simply reading the phone book aloud. And likewise, I can't say enough about the charismatic conviction and cadence of Jackson's delivery, including the way he'll punctuate a single word by using extra breath to push a certain phrase out or insert a syllable like a jazz clarinetist. The ability of these two men to captive us would've made it extraordinarily tempting for most directors to rely on the predictably safe autopilot mode of filmmaking that would've just pitted the men against one another in a David Mamet like chess game and set them loose.

Instead, Gray rises far above that choice that other directors have made when dealing with irreplaceable talent. Staging some sweeping visuals that still linger in my mind days later and assembling a solid ensemble cast consisting of talent like Paul Giammati, David Morse, Ron Rifkin and J.T. Walsh, all elevate what could've been an easy, uninspired, by-the-numbers payday film considerably. And obviously, it's always a treat to see Spacey and Jackson in anything along with fun early Giamatti glimpses, the late great Walsh, and the typecast tough-as-nails David Morse. Furthermore, the film is one elaborate psychologically gripping puzzler with its pre-Departed, post-Serpico tale of corruption staged within a pre-Inside Man and post-Dog Day Afternoon hostage drama.

However, just like that unfortunate spoiler-plagued trailer, the film self-destructs in a dragged out, laughably ludicrous third act, which replaces authentic thrills with dubious cliches of the diabolically chatty mixed together with cowboy standoffs. Unfortunately
the movie seemingly escapes Gray's control completely as we try to process how nobody noticed a major character enter a crime scene filled with cameramen, crowds, SWAT members, the FBI, and the Chicago PD, along with how they managed to lose two men completely when a key player isn't debriefed and instead allowed to simply drive away like he's returning from a night shift at the 7-Eleven.

The impact of these mishaps finds The Negotiator downshifting into a Hollywood finish that would've paid off better either halfway into the film or not at all as two key characters form an alliance, which is again spoiled in the trailer. And honestly, the final act of the film is so out of sync with the rest that one can't help wondering if test screenings, rewrites, or studio pressure was to blame since it's hard to imagine that -- with the caliber of talent and intelligence working on the set-- nobody would've asked a question or two when it all fell apart.

However, a commentary track wasn't included on the disc which is unfortunate for us but no doubt fortunate for Gray who,
aside from the superlative technical quality of the work, may not have wanted to discuss the derail of the plot . Likewise while none of the cast members show up for any kind of new bonus feature, there's a fascinating piece on the movie's outstanding production design that is sure to appeal to Chicagoans especially.

Overall, the visual clarity of the disc is quite good but due to the dark color palette of the largely night-shot film, the black levels of the movie suffer a bit in the transfer and are especially muddied in a few scenes filled with rooms of officers and little lighting. However, if you already own the film on DVD I'd caution getting an upgrade since the film's sound balance is so poor that the effects overwhelm the dialogue. Finding myself blasted out of the seat by the police action and alternately straining to hear the conversations onscreen made me question if the movie may have been better served in the DVD release considering that it's driven by the script and the HD audio mix overloaded on the action.

Although it's modestly successful at best and won't stand out on the resumes of any of those involved, for those who enjoy the work of the cast and/or crew, it makes for an engrossing and mindless Saturday night screening that's vastly improved if you don't watch the trailer beforehand.

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