F. Gary Gray’s well above average late 90’s thriller The Negotiator remains a solid chop off the Dog Day Afternoon block, telling a riveting story of police corruption, mistaken motives, shadowy conspiracies, and high-pressure bits of action. Exciting and tense direction, smart writing from James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, crisp editing by Christian Wager, and classically shot by the great cameraman Russell Carpenter – this film really was the total genre package back in the day, and it deserved a higher profile during the summer of 1998, where it was released to solid reviews and solid if unspectacular box office. It’s the sort of movie that I’d love to see get made these days; tough-guy cinema like this is always in short supply.
Yes – Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey delivered showy and terrific star turns, but this movie BELONGS to its AMAZING supporting cast, which is essentially a roll-call of the A-1 best character actors and “faces” that ever graced a policier potboiler of this sort. Hear me now: David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, J.T. Walsh, baby-faced Paul Giamatti, Michael Cudlitz, Dean Norris, Nestor Serrano, Carlos Gomez, and Jack Shearer just to name a few. You have to wonder how Henry Czerny didn’t make it on the cast list as well. Seriously – these names may not all be familiar, but take a moment and do a Google image search and you’ll realize how incredible these guys were in SO MANY MOVIES throughout the 90’s.
Gray has had a solid career directing slick and disposable Hollywood entertainment, but last year’s Straight Out of Compton and this juicy, exceedingly entertaining ensemble piece rank as his best. I should also revisit Set It Off, as I remember really enjoying that as well. And of course, Friday is an all-time stoner classic, a film that “gets it” in ways that few other films do; it’s as sly and subversive as it is in-your-face-funny. But with The Negotiator, he dared tread in the same waters as genre masters like Sidney Lumet did before him, and he ended up crafting a movie that has some nice edges to go along with its smooth sense of style. This is the definition of a Sunday afternoon matinee that could be joined at any point in the narrative.