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Should I Watch..? 'The Negotiator' (1998)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Movie review of 1998's 'The Negotiator' with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.

Movie review of 1998's 'The Negotiator' with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey.

What's the Big Deal?

The Negotiator is an action thriller film released in 1998 and was written by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox. The film sees an expert hostage negotiator turn the tables on his police colleagues, after apparently being framed for murder, and engage in a hostage situation of his own against another expert negotiator. The film stars Samuel L Jackson, Kevin Spacey, David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, JT Walsh (who appears posthumously) and Paul Giamatti. Directed by F. Gary Gray, the film's plot is loosely based on the pension fund scandal in the St Louis Police Department in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The film only made $71.8 million worldwide but received a largely warm reception from critics who praised the film's cast, direction and tension. The film is dedicated to Walsh who passed away a few months before the film's release.


What's It About?

Lt Danny Roman is the top hostage negotiator in the Chicago PD who is contacted by his partner Nate Roenick, suggesting that he has discovered that members of their own unit have been swindling huge sums of money from the department's disability fund. As Roman is head of this board, he goes to meet Roenick - only to discover his partner's corpse, having been murdered mere seconds earlier. Suddenly, Roman finds himself surrounded by SWAT team members who arrest him for Roenick's murder. To make things worse, Internal Affairs officer Terence Niebaum - who Roenick suspected of being involved in the embezzling - conducts an investigation into Roenick's murder and quickly links Roman to both crimes.

Facing charges of murder and embezzlement, Roman is forced to hand in his badge as he is suspended from the force. With no other option, Roman storms into Niebaum's office to demand answers. When Niebaum refuses to co-operate, Roman takes Niebaum hostage along with his secretary Maggie, police chief Grant Frost and weedy conman Rudy Timmons. Roman's demands are simple: he wants the real murder suspect found, and Roman will only negotiate with fellow negotiator Chris Sabian, who Roman is certain is the only other officer he can trust...

What's to Like?

The film is possibly one of the most underrated thrillers of the nineties, as the film's narrative twists one way and then another while still delivering plenty of bangs for your buck. It feels like a movie such as Speed but played with deadly seriousness, mainly thanks to a capable and talent-heavy cast like this. Jackson actually gives one of the most compelling performances in his career, which is saying something. Instead of his character overwhelming the role, like some of his later film appearances, Jackson's bewildered cop feels like a genuine character thrust into a conspiracy he doesn't fully comprehend. The film also makes great use of Rifkin and Spencer as politically-minded police chiefs, as well as Walsh as the obvious baddie.

Thankfully, Gray is a director able to steer the film in an action-orientated direction with shootouts that ratchet up the tension throughout The Negotiator and stand-offs that also help maintain the film's energetic pace. If you've seen his later films like The Fate Of The Furious or Law Abiding Citizen then you'll know he has an eye for action set pieces and how to make them look good on camera. If anything, the film serves as a coming-out party for Gray, who delivers a gripping and exciting film that acts as a notice of how good a director he is. And with great performances from his cast, this film really should have been a classic. Unfortunately, that isn't quite how things panned out...

The film ratchets the tension up throughout with stand-offs, conflicting agendas and alpha-males butting heads.

The film ratchets the tension up throughout with stand-offs, conflicting agendas and alpha-males butting heads.

Fun Facts

  • The movie was originally written for Spacey to play the hostage taker and Sylvester Stallone to appear as Sabian. When Stallone turned the film down, Spacey decided he wanted to switch roles and the role he was due to play was given to Samuel L. Jackson instead.
  • This film is one of three to be dedicated to J.T. Walsh, the prolific character actor famed for playing sleazy bad guys and described by Playboy magazine as 'everybody's favourite scumbag'. The other films dedicated to him were Hidden Agenda and Pleasantville, both released after his death from a heart attack in February 1998.
  • During shooting of the lengthy phone conversation between them, Spacey made a point of being on set for Jackson's scenes to help with his performance. The pair had previously appeared together in A Time To Kill.

What's Not to Like?

For me, the main issue is Kevin Spacey and not just because of certain allegations (at the time of writing) swirling around him like flies. Although his performance is a credit to him, he feels oddly out of place in the role of Sabian - he simply doesn't have the 'alpha male' style of the rest of the leading cast. I would go so far as to say that he was miscast in the role, despite him delivering as good a performance as he does. In light of the recent stories surrounding his behaviour off-screen, it does detract somewhat from the film as well, which is a shame. Granted, that isn't the fault of The Negotiator but it's a stark reminder of how one of Hollywood's more dependable leading men has had his career utterly destroyed.

But now we get to the elephant in the room: the film's premise is complete nonsense. Even looking past the fact that Chicago has not one but two hotshot hostage negotiators on the force, but also the real culprits try to frame possibly the most honest cop on the books. which was never going to look convincing. Yet apparently, everybody is all too willing to believe that Roman is not just a crook but a murderer despite an absence of motive. Yet in spite of all this, the film stretches the premise beyond breaking point and in the end, the silliness takes you out of the film enough to render the tension redundant. It's a pity because this is a decent enough movie with action and acting in abundance, but the slightly wonky premise and the miscasting of Spacey do just enough to prevent the film from being a classic.

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Jackson gives one of the most confident performances of his esteemed career, delivering a character full of defiance and reluctant rage.

Jackson gives one of the most confident performances of his esteemed career, delivering a character full of defiance and reluctant rage.

Should I Watch It?

The Negotiator does a lot of stuff right - it has a tense stand-off, plenty of exciting action scenes and some genuinely great performances from its cast, from the leads to the minor supporting characters. But it isn't enough to sustain a somewhat silly storyline with fairly blatant plot twists, nor is it exciting enough to distract you from the presence of Kevin Spacey. It's an OK watch but unlikely to stir audiences enough for them to fully recommend it.

Great For: Jackson's acting reputation, Gray's directorial career, action fans looking for something a little more interesting

Not So Great For: anyone now repulsed by the sight of Kevin Spacey, anyone looking for an intelligent script, anyone bored of yet another cop-based shooter

What Else Should I Watch?

The film I was most reminded of, weirdly, was John Q. which was a mostly forgettable drama in which Denzel Washington plays a grieving father who holds a hospital hostage in order to force them to operate on his sick son. Like Jackson in The Negotiator, Washington delivers a typically great performance but the film itself is more emotionally wrought and less action-orientated than this movie. Washington also appears in another hostage drama, Spike Lee's Inside Man, with Washington acting as negotiator during a tense stand-off in a Wall Street bank. While it's Lee's highest-earning film to date, it lacks a little of the director's trademark examination of race relations in the US and I wasn't particularly enthused by it.

Writer James DeMonaco would go to have great success with his Purge series, starting with The Purge in 2013. A horror thriller set in a fascist America in the near future (I'm not saying anything!), the film stars Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as a married couple attempting to survive a night where all crime is legal for a 12-hour period. Director Gray would suffer a couple of misfires in the wretched remake of The Italian Job and the critically mauled Be Cool but he returned to Hollywood's good books in spectacular fashion with the NWA-biopic Straight Outta Compton, an unflinching look at the birth of one of rap's most notorious acts and its ultimate fall from grace.

Main Cast


Samuel L. Jackson

Lt Danny Roman

Kevin Spacey

Chris Sabian

David Morse

Adam Beck

Ron Rifkin

Chief Grant Frost

John Spencer

Chief Al Travis

J.T. Walsh

Terence Niebaum

Siobhan Fallon


Paul Giamatti

Rudy Timmons

Technical Info

DirectorF. Gary Gray


James DeMonaco & Kevin Fox

Running Time

140 minutes

Release Date (UK)

27th November, 1998




Action, Crime, Drama

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

Soap Box

Benjamin Cox (author) from Norfolk, UK on March 12, 2020:

Thanks very much!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on March 10, 2020:

Detailed and interesting review. Well presented.

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