In theory, "The Negotiator" sounds like a can't-miss movie. Still, despite high-octane casting and an incendiary situation, this thriller smolders but never quite catches fire.
A big part of the first-rate casting is Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Danny Roman, a Chicago police hostage negotiator who finds himself framed for the murder of his partner and embezzlement from the police disability fund.
When he finds himself backed into a corner, Danny takes hostages in the office of the department's internal affairs inspector, Terence Niebaum (the late J.T. Walsh), who has been tormenting him.
Knowing that Danny is a master of its tactics, the hostage team accedes to his demand that he deal only with Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), a negotiator from another precinct. Danny knows that whoever set him up has to be in his own squad, and wants to use Sabian to uncover the truth.
This sets the stage for what should have been a memorable battle of wits between two of the finest actors in movies today. Unfortunately, the script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox takes wild leaps in logic, and only rarely does the dialogue rise above the routine.
Jackson, so terrific as a good man pushed to the edge in last year's "187," is too obviously the good guy here. We never believe he has lost control or is about to do something terrible.
His character, a brilliant hostage negotiator, seems to believe that he can enhance his position with his squad by taking hostages and making them think he has executed another cop in cold blood. He even berates his boss (Ron Rifkin) for not being convinced of his innocence in the middle of all this.
As for Spacey, this is one time where he seems to be trying to play his role as straight as possible, when the patented Spacey edge is exactly what is needed. His approach is curiously one-note, and he never displays any real sense of rage when he thinks that giving Danny a break has led to the death of a police officer.
At two hours and 18 minutes, "The Negotiator," begins to feel like a test of will for the audience, as well as its participants.
Director F. Gary Gray's movie has its moments. The opening sequence, in which Danny saves the life of a little girl at the risk of his own, is riveting, and the last half hour finally manages to build some tension. But for the most part, nearly every time that raw human emotion is called for, what we get is movie-talk and action-flick solutions.
A good example is just how much of the duel of words is done for straight belly laughs. There are at least two characters who are around only for comic relief. Laughter in this kind of tense, deadly situation should be of the nervous, gallows kind, not the sitcom variety.
The human element is sorely lacking in "The Negotiator," despite a rock-solid supporting cast that isn't asked to do very much. David Morse mostly glowers as the action-oriented SWAT commander, the cop played by John Spencer merely looks glum about Danny's situation (forgetting about their 20 years working together); and Regina Taylor, as Danny's wife, is positively stoic for a woman who first thinks her husband is being set up for a prison sentence, and then to be killed.
This movie just can't decide whether it is an action saga of the "Die Hard" variety, or a taut psychological thriller like "Dog Day Afternoon." Instead, it languishes somewhere in the middle, and only picks up when the plot gets moving along toward resolution.
This underuse of immense talent and a great central concept makes "The Negotiator" one of the summer's big disappointments.