There seems to be a rule of thumb surrounding Samuel L. Jackson films that may be a safe one to live by. When Sam does a lot of smack talking, the film is generally one that you can watch and enjoy. However there's an unrelated rule that I have too; bald actors who wear wigs in films frequently will usually produce a cinematic turd. I call this the "Bruce Willis/Bonfire of the Vanities" rule. Occasionally, there are some exceptions but generally I think this rule holds up. But the bald Jackson wears a wig in The Negotiator. So does science and time get flipped on its ear or what?
From a screenplay by James DeMonaco (Skinwalkers) and Kevin Fox which F. Gary Gray (Friday) directed, Jackson plays Lieutenant Danny Roman, hostage negotiator for a district in Chicago. Danny tends to take chances that others in his unit might not take otherwise. That type of high-risk behavior has earned him many friends within the department, including his superiors like Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin, Alias) and Chief Travis (John Spencer, The West Wing). He's also ruffled the feathers of others like Commander Beck (David Morse, The Green Mile). But overall, the department works well, gets hostages out of situations alive, and they're a close knit group, going to each other's weddings and other significant life events.
Things take a tragic turn when Danny's partner is killed. His partner had been trying to find out who was at the root of corruption within the department, defrauding its pension plan of thousands of dollars. Soon the investigation points at Danny, who professes his innocence and confronts his main accuser, an internal affairs investigator (J.T. Walsh, A Few Good Men). During this confrontation, Danny makes the decision to take Niebaum and several others hostage, and asks for a fellow Chicago PD negotiator (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty) to lead the negotiations. This will help Danny buy time while he finds out both who killed his partner and defrauding the department.
The basic story of the film is rather simple; guy who's been doing his job for years is placed on the other end of things, which is both awkward and potentially costly. But the interplay Jackson has with those around him makes for the real treat in The Negotiator. Spacey doesn't appear in the film for the first 35 minutes, and Jackson gets to act with those I mentioned earlier, an exceptional yet underrated ensemble of actors who help move the story along convincingly. When Spacey shows up at the scene the bar for performances has been set, and Spacey keeps the bar up and moves it a notch or two higher. They keep the tension palatable and engrossing, and Jackson's pursuit of the truth gives you a stake in the resolution.
But the big problem with the film is the resolution itself. With the standoff being housed in a large office building along the river in downtown Chicago, and such a law enforcement presence built up during the siege, the fact that they could miss such a basic point cheapens what had been a good movie to that point. I won't reveal what it is for those who still haven't seen it, but with such a realistic setting for the film, to have that happen is wrong, and it hurt the appeal of the film as a result.
Like a lot of films, the premise within The Negotiator is interesting, but this third act resolution not only is a cop-out, but also drags on a few minutes more than it had to. Still, with good performances by its stars (especially Jackson), the film is one that I stop and watch on TV every so often. But I turn it off with 20 minutes ago, so it isn't ruined for me again.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner presents The Negotiator in a VC-1 encoded 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer, and the results are decent. Blacks are solid throughout the feature, and image detail can be made out very well in the tight shots. Skintones are accurately reproduced and the Chicago skylines look outstanding, possessing more background depth than I expected. The film looked good on standard definition from what I remembered and this Blu-ray appears to be an upgrade from this.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound option was too erratic for a film of relatively young age. Speaker panning was present in most of the scenes involving a helicopter which was circling outside the building, and there was an occasional hint of directional effects involving the rear speakers, but dialogue was all over the board. Sometimes it would sound fine in the center channel but other times would drop to just above a whisper. If you adjusted the volume and the film cut to a gunshot, or other scene that had a whiff of subwoofer activity, you ran the risk of getting a heart attack. You've got lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 sound options in English, French, Spanish and Italian as alternatives.
What few supplements there are come in full frame viewing, starting with "The 11th Hour" (6:51), a look at real-life hostage situations from Todd Rheingold, negotiator for the Los Angeles Police Department. He recalls some experiences, but also discusses what a negotiator aims to do, and how they approach each standoff. "On Location: Why Chicago" (16:28) explains Gray's inspiration for using the city as a backdrop for the film, and the type of production design ideas employed. The use of the building in the film is touched on, including the challenges of shooting where they did, and what it changed in regards to the production schedule. The trailer (2:33) rounds things out.
The Negotiator is an exciting and white knuckled ride that's worth taking every so often. However on Blu-ray, the results are a mixed bag. If you really enjoyed the film and are looking to upgrade, by all means, do so. But I'd strongly encourage a rental, if for nothing else to savor the cast and their acting talents.