Combine gorgeous cinematography; two of the more interesting actors working in mainstream cinema today (Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey); a hot-shot young music video director (F. Gary Gray, who has worked with Ice Cube and TLC); and the potentially fascinating dramatic premise of intelligent, articulate characters facing off in the normally simplistic confines of a U.S. action movie (kind of like what David Mamet did in "The Edge"), and you'd think the filmmakers would end up with something more than ... well, more than a Summer Hollywood movie.
"The Negotiator" predictably begins with a standard, high-tension opening sequence designed to both grip the audience by its collective throat and to also deftly introduce the main character through the witty revelation of quaint idiosyncrasies (refer to Riggs' maniacal Three Stooges impersonation in the "Lethal Weapon" franchise).
In this case, all we take away after Chicago police hostage negotiator Danny Roman's (Jackson) introduction is that he's brave, doesn't play by the rules, is a badass negotiator, and is a regular on the evening news. Oh, yeah, we also learn he's recently married, loves his new wife, and promises her he won't do anything "crazy" on the job anymore. (I wonder if Roman is related to Riggs.)
An equally paint-by-numbers plot lurch soon follows, when Danny's best friend/partner is killed and Danny, of course, is framed for the murder. Seems some unnamed crooked cops in Danny's precinct are skimming millions off the police pension fund. Danny isn't sure who the crooked cops are since his partner, of course, dies before naming names.
And so, after another obligatory cop movie scene -- the old, quasi-symbolic "leave your gun and badge on the desk" emotional acting exercise -- all Danny knows for sure is that someone's out to get him and he must take drastic, perhaps "crazy" action to save himself.
So what's a desperate, well-trained hostage negotiator to do? Why, take some hostages of his own; that'll prove for sure he's not the fall guy for some unbelievable conspiracy.
Besides, now we finally get a reason to introduce main actor number two: Kevin Spacey plays Chris Sabian, the second-best hostage negotiator. Once the mano-a-mano negotiator vs. negotiator conflict is established, the film finally (occasionally) delivers, with a few clever action sequences.
Did I mention that Danny Roman is black? Well, neither does anyone else in the movie. Considering that director Gray is African-American, and that one theme I did manage to glean out of the one-dimensional story concerns the lone man fighting against a corrupt system (in this case, a lone black man fighting against a largely white corrupt system), I couldn't help but think of Melvin Van Peebles' early blaxploitation classic "Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" (1971). But just barely. Peebles' film, after all, speaks with non-mainstream subversive intent to the needs of a specific, underrepresented audience, with a radical political point of view.
Ultimately, what's interesting about "The Negotiator" is how it fits into Gray's developing studio career, and, in a wider context, what the film says about the compromises necessary for the so-called expanding opportunities now available for historically marginalized filmmakers (and talent) to contribute to that great American discourse of Hollywood moviemaking.
From "Friday," to "Set It Off," to this vapid work, Gray seems well-positioned not to follow the challenging work of Spike Lee or Charles Burnett, but instead to pursue the successful career strategy of mainstream, commercially trained filmmakers such as Michael Bay of "Con Air" and "Armageddon" fame. "Do the Right Thing" this film is not.
In terms of color representation, this summer has introduced a series of mixed and contradictory messages, including the assertive role of Jennifer Lopez in "Out of Sight," the faux-Latino Antonio Banderas in the colonialist "Zorro" flick, and to the upcoming marketing-determined Chayenne dance movie. What we haven't seen yet -- and I'm not holding my breath -- is Radio Raheem, or Gregorio Cortez, or even Thelma and Louise, from summer movies past. But it's summer, right? Vacation time. I should chill out, and so should you. Let the negotiations begin at an air-conditioned theater near you. Just don't bring any grand and hopeful expectations.
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