It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The Negotiator” is a triumph of style over story, and of acting over characters. The movie's a thriller that really hums along, and I was intensely involved almost all the way. Only now, typing up my notes, do I fully realize how many formula elements it contains.
Consider. In the opening scene, a Chicago police negotiator named Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) calmly talks with a madman who has taken his own daughter hostage. The siege ends in victory, just as it does in every other cop movie. The next scene, of course, is the cops celebrating in a bar and watching coverage of themselves on TV. There's always one sorehead who makes a point of not celebrating the hero's triumph. Pay close attention to this character, who is the False Villain and is there to throw you off the track.
Next major sequence: Hero cop faces sudden disgrace. Is accused of embezzling funds from police pension fund. Is framed to look like a bad guy. Has no friends anymore. I don't have to tell you this always leads to the Gun and Badge scene, in which the hero drops the tools of his trade on the chief's desk.
The film now moves quickly toward its central notion, which is that one trained negotiator faces another one--meaning that men understand each other's strategies. Roman, facing jail as the victim of a frameup, takes hostages, including Niebaum (the late J.T. Walsh), an investigator looking into the missing pension funds. Roman says there is only one negotiator he will deal with--Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), a man who is not part of the department and unlikely to be in on the frame-up.
Until Sabian's arrival on the scene, “The Negotiator” has been assembled from off-the-shelf parts. But then the movie comes alive. There's a chemistry between the negotiators played by Jackson and Spacey; sometimes they seem to be communicating in code, or by the looks in their eyes.