N is for… The Negotiator
The Negotiator, directed by F. Gary Gray, is more of a thriller than an action movie, but it does have content for most of my categories, and stars Samuel L. Jackson, so it has to be included. I’m learning I may have an interest in hostage negotiations, as the film made me think fondly about Hostage (which I may review here at some point as I love that movie and it stars Bruce Willis), the short-lived but highly enjoyable Fox drama Standoff, and, oddly enough, Airheads (yes, the movie where Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler take over a radio station).
In the film, Jackson plays Danny Roman, a hostage negotiator in Chicago. He is framed for the murder of his partner Nate (Paul Guilfoyle), who had just told him he had details about who was stealing money from the disability fund. Evidence against him includes he was seen standing over the body, the murder weapon can be traced to him, and there are receipts from an offshore bank account in his house. After realizing he has the support of no one as he argues his case, Danny takes the inspector for the Department of Internal Affairs (Niebaum, played by J.T. Walsh) hostage, along with his assistant (Maggie, played by Siobhan Fallon), a former thief (Rudy, played by Paul Giamatti), and his own boss (Frost, played by Ron Rifkin). Danny obviously knows how to shred his department’s training and get them all confused due to his familiarity with them, and he demands to speak only with the hostage negotiator for the other section of Chicago, Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey).
As Danny negotiates with Sabian, it becomes clear that Danny isn’t lying or crazy; there is indeed something going on with his department, and so he may in fact be innocent (the audience knows he is, but no one in the film does). Sabian fights an uphill battle against Danny’s coworkers, including Beck (David Morse) and Chief Travis (John Spencer), and stops trusting them entirely once he realizes that there is a lot more going on than a disgruntled cop, especially considering the department seems intent on killing Danny rather than saving the hostages. His orders against full-on assault are entirely defied.
With Maggie and Rudy’s help, Danny is able to get the evidence he needs against Niebaum, but can’t act on the information before Niebaum is shot during an attempted infiltration. After realizing Danny was right and Niebaum’s death is the next step in someone covering up evidence, Sabian “allows” Danny to escape. He helps Danny get evidence to his department as Frost admits to stealing the money with three other cops in the department, and using part of it to frame Danny. The film ends with the guilty cops arrested, Danny free and clear, and a federal building in shambles on the 20th floor.
To the categories!
A is for… Accents
While there aren’t any actual accents in The Negotiator, certainly not any foreign ones at least, there is Jackson’s unique speech pattern and inflection.
B is for… Bad Guys
The film is a true mystery story, because the viewer has no idea “who the killer is” and only learns as Danny does. As such it’s kind of hard to label the “bad guys.” However, Niebaum, the Internal Affairs inspector whom Danny targets right away, just plain looks sleazy and bored and awful. Danny was right all along about him, as Niebaum eventually admits to “losing” his recordings with evidence of the guilty cops—Argento, Hellman, and Allen—when offered bribe money.
Throughout the entire negotiation, all of Danny’s coworkers are presented as sketchy and downright unlikeable as they try to get Danny to confess, except for Palermo (Michael Cudlitz) and Eagle (Carlos Gómez), and of course the fumbling Farley (Stephen Lee). Clearly this was to keep the audience in suspense, as I thought the suspicious-acting Beck was clearly in on the scheme and he actually had nothing to do with it.
Frost explains to Sabian that he used the stolen money to frame Danny, and that there isn’t much left. He names names, and overall seems rather unpleasant and self-righteous. Truth be told, I kind of suspected him from the beginning of the hostage takeover.
C is for… Chases
The film takes place mostly in one building, so there isn’t really any room for chases. There is one brief shot of a civilian helicopter that the police helicopter tells to move out of the air space, and it looks like a set up for a helicopter chase, but the civilian helicopter is never seen again.
D is for… Damsels
Linda, Nate’s wife, played by Rhonda Dotson, seems very nice and is friends with Karen, Danny’s wife. However, after Danny is blamed for Nate’s death, she is horrid and cold to him, which I suppose is to be expected. However, it’s frustrating that after he worked with Nate for so many years, she could so easily believe Danny killed him.
Karen (Regina Taylor) is Danny’s wife, and like every other movie wife married to a cop, she gives him grief about his job and how he performs it. She’s legitimately worried about him making it home alive every night, but their marriage is depicted as new and clearly she had to know what he did for a living before agreeing to marry him. She tells him not to be stupid.
Maggie is Niebaum’s assistant, and while intentionally not a ray of sunshine, so to speak, she’s an interesting character who must choose a side: support her boss, or help out the strange man keeping her locked up against her will. She seems very strong as she doesn’t cry or shy away from Danny, and later helps him unravel what a jerk her boss is.
E is for… Explosions
There aren’t any true explosions in the film, but there are many instances of flashbangs. Danny takes them from the vests of SWAT guys who tried to storm in and take him down, and uses them on his coworkers who try to infiltrate the office. He also uses one to start a fire that distracts everyone and allows him to escape.
F is for… Flashbacks
At one point there’s a brief flashback to Nate being shot, but that’s it.
G is for… Guns
There are plenty of guns in the film, though most of them are police weapons. Check out the full listing here at the IMFDB.
The film opens with Danny trying to talk down hostage-taker Omar (Tom Bower), and Omar has a shotgun. The same opening scene has a crowd of SWAT guys with their own assault weapons. Across the street, Palermo has his sniper rifle at the ready, awaiting Danny’s signal to fire.
Nate is shot with a handgun that is thrown into the lake. Danny is attached to the crime because the gun was one of a set of three, and he’d found and handed in the other two previously.
During Nate’s funeral, there is a 21 gun salute carried out by ceremonial rifles.
Danny takes a handgun to take Niebaum hostage and start his standoff.
Danny makes everyone in Internal Affairs hand over their guns, and a lot of them have revolvers.
The guns belonging to the SWAT guys that try to take down Danny have flashlights on them.
Shootouts include the two-SWAT-guy breach while Danny is out of Niebaum’s office, and the infiltration done by Argento to shoot Niebaum.
H is for… Helicopters
There are either multiple police helicopters flying around, or just one that keeps getting shown. Usually it’s shown depositing SWAT guys or holding SWAT guys as they try to take out Danny.
There’s the lone shot of the civilian helicopter that does nothing.
I is for… Improvisation
It’s somewhat unclear just how much prior planning Danny did versus making things happen with what he had. Either way it works, because there’s no shortage of guns for him to use nor non-lethal tools to work into his plan such as the flashbangs.
He also—after pretending to shoot Scott (Dean Norris)—is able to strip off Scott’s clothes and wear them himself to sneak out of the building to get to Niebaum’s house.
It’s also unclear as to whether or not he knew Maggie and Rudy were in Niebaum’s office at that exact time, or if he just got lucky that they were there and were also the key to him finding the evidence he needed.
J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects
When Scott and his partner enter the office to try to get the hostages out, it’s unclear whether they shoot the windows out first or just smash through them.
K is for… Kill Count
Danny obviously tries very hard not to shoot and kill anyone, considering he’s a good cop that’s trying to prove his innocence. However, it’s unclear whether the SWAT guys trying to infiltrate the office are all either stunned, called off, giving up, or if Danny does actually shoot one or two. There’s a lot of chaos in those moments.
L is for… Limitations
Danny is fighting an immense uphill battle:
-He only has one day before he must choose to take the court’s deal or likely go to prison.
-Everyone thinks he’s guilty except for his wife.
-The people setting him up are cops, so they know all the tricks.
-He has to get his hostages to help him, which takes a lot of talk and work.
-Just as he knows the personal details of his coworkers and can manipulate them, they can do the same to him.
M is for… Motivation
Niebaum thinks Danny wants money, but the audience knows Danny wants to clear his name and save his life, avenge the death of his partner, and find out who stole the money.
Frost and the other cops, and of course Niebaum, just want money. It’s unclear why Danny is the one set up.
N is for… Negotiation
As Danny is a hostage negotiator, there’s a lot of negotiation in The Negotiator. (I know, you’re shocked.)
In the opening scene, Danny tries to negotiate with Omar: “I show you your wife and you let the girl go, but let me in first.”
The judge overseeing Danny’s case tells him he has one day to make a deal rather than go to court.
Danny argues with Niebaum, “You don’t feel like talking? We’re going to stay here until you do.”
Danny also says that if Sabian doesn’t arrive on the scene in 20 minutes, Rudy dies.
Sabian is introduced as he tries to negotiate with his wife and daughter—his wife to come out of the bedroom and his daughter to get off the phone. He fails on both accounts.
Danny, trying to both bust Farley’s chops and show he’s serious, argues, “You say no again, I’ll kill somebody.”
Rudy plays the “I’ve changed so don’t hurt me” card, and says he found a woman with a great kid.
Danny offers to his hostages, “We’re not leaving here until we find out who set me up.”
He also challenges, “I know the rules of engagement, so don’t test me.”
Danny tells his coworkers that he won’t give up until he gets back his badge, if he dies he gets a departmental funeral, he learns the identity of Nate’s killer, and learns the identity of Nate’s informant. He continues to say they have eight hours until he kills one hostage an hour, and he wants to talk to Sabian face to face.
Sabian argues, “We’re gonna do it my way, or I walk.”
Danny is told that if one more gun is fired, the SWAT guys are coming in.
After Sabian starts making the calls to force things along, Danny offers him one hostage if he gets the electricity turned on and brings food and blankets for the hostages.
Later he offers to Sabian that if Sabian can get the name of whomever Nate spoke to the night before he died, he’ll surrender one hostage.
Sabian argues, “Make one wrong move, I’ll take you down myself.”
After Danny vacates, Rudy and Maggie are interrogated, and when Maggie refuses to give up Danny’s next move, she’s told she needs to speak up or go to jail.
Argento and Danny tell each other to make a deal.
Sabian demands, “You want to deal? You deal with me.”
Frost and Sabian negotiate what cut of the stolen money will be given to Sabian to keep his mouth shut. They work down from 60% to 50% to 30% to 45% to 35%.
O is for… One Liners
Danny, illustrating how good he is at lying and sweet-talking hostage takers, after talking about being in the Marines and loving his pet dog: I was in the army and I fucking hate dogs.
Guy interrupting Nate talking with Danny: You girls blowing each other?
Danny: I was about to get a blow job till you showed up.
Beck: He’s one of our guys. We got this.
Fed: That’s fine. For now.
Sabian, failing to placate his wife after their daughter makes a remark: That’s not the word she used. She used a… much worse word.
Sabian: I once talked a man out of blowing up the Sears tower but I cannot talk my wife out of the bedroom or my kid off the phone.
Danny: You’re goddamn right this is serious. So why don’t you take me seriously?
Danny: I’m relaxed. I’m very fucking relaxed.
Rudy, to Farley, after Farley fails Danny’s “no” test: We’re all okay, just don’t be saying ‘no’ no more, motherfucker!
Sabian: So what’s this then, the exception that disproves the rule?
Danny, to Sabian: You’re much better at this than Farley.
Sabian: Mrs. Roman, you bring tension and emotion to a scene that already has too much of both.
Rudy: Do I look like I’m okay? I have a gun pointed at the back of my head.
Danny: When your friends betray you, sometimes the only people you can trust are strangers.
Sabian, angry with the department for not listening to him: Your chain of command just gave Danny Roman two more hostages!
Sabian: You want to shoot him on national television now?
Rudy: I’m very disappointed in all of you.
P is for… Profession
Danny, as depicted in the opening scene, is a hostage negotiator. Right away the audience sees how the process works and what tools are available to him, such as a list of the taker’s likes and dislikes, and cameras and mirrors being used for visibility. Danny smooth talks by necessity, and thus is very good at it. He’s also somewhat of a rogue, evident by the way in which he chooses to go in and talk with Omar face to face and unarmed, rather than storm in with the SWAT guys. At the chief’s party his coworkers say he’s “on the news again,” and the news says he “saved the day again,” so clearly he’s high profile and good at what he does. He is immediately vilified by his coworkers, which lends credence to the idea that some of them are in on the framing—there isn’t anyone at all willing to stand up for him?
Again one has to wonder if he planned to take additional hostages, those particular hostages, or if he just got lucky. He of course knows all the tricks used in negotiations, so he seals off the vents and exits, destroys the cameras (which is coworkers seem so disappointed about; obviously he’s going to find and destroy them!), and shuts the blinds to ensure zero visibility for anyone outside.
He’s also described as being an expert in explosives and tactics, and one of his coworkers uses “Stockholm” as a verb to describe Danny using his familiarity with everyone to get them on his side.
He’s been working there for twelve years, but Frost has known him for twenty years.
Q is for… Quagmire
The only time Danny seemed to be in true danger was during the fire fight where Niebaum gets killed, but he does a good job of defending himself anyway. Niebaum was the immediate and primary target.
R is for… Reality/Suspension of Disbelief
The Negotiator is an example of one of those tight but thrilling, high stress/stakes films that can actually happen. The theft itself is loosely based on a theft in St. Louis.
As far as the actual hostage negotiation process as depicted, there’s a featurette on the DVD in which an actual hostage negotiator is filmed talking about his craft, so clearly research and care went into how everything was put together.
S is for… Sidekicks
While seemingly tricky to collect sidekicks while taking people hostage at gunpoint, Danny manages.
Sabian, as the other negotiator, can be counted, for even though they’re on opposite sides, they ultimately want the same thing: everyone to get out alive. Sabian is also described as never forcing tactical action, meaning he prefers to talk out the situation rather than go in guns a-blazing. In five years he has had zero casualties on a case. He once negotiated for 55 hours. It’s unclear how Danny knows Sabian or how well, but it’s obviously better for Danny to negotiate with someone unrelated to his department. Sabian, once he starts getting suspicious, points out that even though he has nothing invested in what’s going on with Danny, he seems to be the only person not interested in shooting him.
Palermo can be counted as a sidekick because while he doesn’t actively help Danny, he refuses to shoot him when ordered to.
Maggie is brave and sides with Danny over her boss—or perhaps just knows giving Danny the information she has will get them all out of there faster and alive. She tells Danny about the files on Niebaum’s computer, and helps Rudy navigate the computer’s security system. She also tells Danny that Niebuam worked from home a lot and probably has the recordings Danny needs at his house.
Rudy is a ‘former’ criminal Danny apprehended. He’s able to use Maggie’s information to navigate Niebaum’s computer to find and play the audio files of tapped phones that Niebaum had been storing. He also—while knowing he will remain a hostage by providing the information—points out that Sabian is lying when he says he has Nate’s informant, because Nate himself is listed as the informant.
T is for… Technology
Remote cameras are used to provide visibility inside hostage scenes.
It is very distracting when Danny looks at his beeper, because in today’s age beepers seem to be associated with doctors and the mid-late ‘90s.
The files on Niebaum’s computer are wire taps.
Sabian “has” the evidence stored on two floppy discs, which surely can’t hold all that many taps.
Simple handheld radios are the final tool used to reveal Danny’s innocence, as Frost spells everything out for Sabian like a Bond villain.
U is for… Unexpected Romance
Fortunately, as Danny is married and Maggie is strong and rightfully angry, there is no romance at all in the film.
V is for… Vehicles as Weapons
There aren’t many vehicles at all, because most of the film takes place on one floor of a building and the police camp outside the building.
But, considering the police helicopter(s) has SWAT guys leaping out of it and brandishing weapons from it, it counts.
W is for… Winning
After Danny gets the information off of Niebaum’s computer and Maggie tells him there’s more at Niebaum’s house, Danny escapes the building (with Sabian’s help) and makes his way to Niebaum’s home office. Two of the guilty cops get there and try to talk Danny down. Eventually Frost shows up, and he shoos the cops out and locks the door behind him. It’s finally revealed that Frost was also involved in the theft.
Sabian reveals himself to be there, and says he wants part of the stolen money. Frost explains that there isn’t much left because he’s been spending it, and a lot was used to set up Danny. Danny comes out, and Sabian shoots him in the gut after trying to signal him by referring to a movie they’d discussed earlier. Sabian hands over the floppy discs with the evidence, and Frost crushes them.
Frost exits the house and informs the collected arsenal of police that Danny is dead. He then realizes that everyone had heard his confession of involvement in the crime on their radios, because as Danny and Sabian exit the house behind him Danny reveals he was using Sabian’s radio to broadcast Frost’s confession. The guilty cops are arrested.
Now clear, although shot, Danny is taken to the hospital, and given back his badge by Sabian.
X is for… X-rays, or Maybe You Should See a Doctor
Danny gets shot in the arm during the hostage scene, but is just fine.
Sabian shoots him in the gut to trick Frost into confessing. Somehow Danny seems okay enough to dramatically hand over his gun once Frost is down, and Sabian half drags him to the stretcher. Why the stretcher wasn’t brought to him, I don’t know.
Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem Becomes Today’s Problem
Literally if a day or two before Nate had been honest about what was going on, the entire framing situation could have been avoided. Danny could have pushed harder to get the information.
Z is for… Zone, in the
Throughout most of the film Danny is in his element; he’s a professional hostage negotiator who is just working the other side as the hostage taker. Because he knows everything that will be tried, he can easily sidestep and use whatever happens to his advantage. He also knows when to fold them, so to speak, such as offering Frost back in order to get the electricity turned on.
The Negotiator was very enjoyable, and while long it didn’t seem to drag like other films I’ve reviewed (Executive Decision, I’m looking at you). The concept is really interesting, and the execution is very good. Jackson and Spacey are great, and the supporting cast of hostages is excellent. The situation is very tense, but Rudy with his attitude and Farley with his hilarious inadequateness help to add some humor.
As I mentioned in my intro, the film is reminiscent of other films, but I neglected to refer to the film that kept popping into my head: Die Hard. Perhaps I’m unfairly associating Jackson with Die Hard because of his role in Die hard With a Vengeance, but I think the comparison is warranted.
-The film’s setting of one office and one trailer makes it very claustrophobic, which was intentional on the part of Die Hard.
-There is talk of western movies, though not of Roy Rogers.
-I found myself recalling the bits of conversation related to Hostage Terrorist, Terrorist Hostage.
-There’s reference to “the man upstairs,” an expression Gruber uses to describe McClane, and which McClane uses to describe God.
-There’s the inevitable “city versus federal” power struggle.
-Interestingly, there’s no mention of shutting off the heat in Die Hard, but that may be because it’s Los Angeles. It would still get chilly at night at Christmastime, though. And while off topic, there’s a lot of sweating going on in The Negotiator, considering it’s supposed to be cold out enough to need heat.
There’s a reference to AMC showing old westerns, which served as a reminder that AMC once upon a time actually aired American movie classics, not anything that fit the definition of a “movie.” And remember when it didn’t have commercials? /soapbox
The Negotiator is definitely something I’d recommend to people, even if it’s not a true “action” movie. The suspense and genuine mystery, however, and the chemistry between Spacey and Jackson, make the film really entertaining and not in need of more explosions or chases. There are plenty of guns, clever bits of dialogue, sidekicks, and negotiation to round it out.