Fresh off of the successful N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton, director F. Gary Gray was recently announced as the next shepherd of the Fast & Furious franchise, following in the footsteps of action-centric helmers for hire like Rob Cohen and series innovator Justin Lin. His selection shouldn’t come as a shock — he just made Universal a ton of money and he’s familiar with Vin Diesel from the pair’s failed revenge flick A Man Apart — but the realization that a director who has flown under the radar as long as Gray has is about to lead the most vital, versatile film conglomerate of the modern era is cause enough to take a trip back through his filmography. To that end, no entry in Gray’s cinematic CV remains as underappreciated as 1998’s The Negotiator.

Gray’s oeuvre follows a similar trajectory to that of fellow Fast filmmaker John Singleton, only the former managed to find consistent, unsung box office success where the latter squandered a great deal of rookie gravitas on underperforming studio fare. Both maintain a workman like approach to directing mainstream action thrillers, but while Gray has always lacked Singleton’s assured hand with weightier source material, he more than makes up for with an enviable versatility that has aided him over the years. The Negotiator is a prime example of his ability to blend a sturdy, prismatic vision of thriller tropes with a sharp eye for effective, immersive character interaction. He’s equally at home orchestrating bullet baths with ample coverage as he is letting medium shots breathe back and forth to give his casts room to work out in.

The Negotiator is a throwback to a time when studios were comfortable greenlighting straightforward thrillers based off of little more than the opportunity to see two reliable movie stars spar for a couple of hours. We haven’t had a really good entry in this proud tradition since Spike Lee’s Inside Man back in 2006, but a decade prior, the format was still pretty commonplace.

Samuel L. Jackson leads as Danny Roman, a supercop hostage negotiator who can talk anyone down, as evidenced in the film’s ten-minute opening set piece. Roman’s unique skills as a persuasive, believable communicator come natural to Jackson, an actor who has made an entire career out of making questionable dialogue sound impressive armed only with his conviction and a certain brio for lengthy passages of text. The film takes its time wringing the maximum amount of tension from presenting Roman’s risk taking, unorthodox methods as effective, necessary deviations from protocol. There’s tension between he and his co-workers, specifically David Morse’s Adam Beck, but he is otherwise beloved, exalted, an absolute paragon of crime fiction superhumanity. His partner Nate (“CSI”’s Paul Guilfoyle), is getting too close to an ongoing investigation about someone embezzling from the force’s disability fund and, naturally, is killed for his trouble, leaving Roman framed for the murder and the theft.

In an ironic turn, Roman’s only recourse is to take hostages himself, among them internal affairs agent Niebaum (JT Walsh in one of his last roles), Niebaum’s assistant (Siobhan Fallon), an informant (Paul Giamatti) and Commander Frost (Ron Rifkin). Roman is convinced Niebaum is in on the conspiracy to frame him, so it’s the super negotiator up against the team who usually aids him in stopping the very act he’s left no choice but to carry out. The only negotiator he’ll personally deal with is Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), his opposite number across town and the only person he feels he can trust. Roman and Sabian have great chemistry, squabbling over their differing interpretations of Shane’s ending while navigating a knotty web of duplicity and disinformation.

The film’s most engaging elements are borne from an exploration of the nature of negotiating itself, bargaining with words and gambling on intentions. It’s ostensibly a film about bluffing and the give and take inherent in lying and being lied to. There’s the ongoing deception of Roman’s framing that looms over the narrative, either as a ghastly bit of paranoia on Roman’s part or a thin blue line of corruption, but the smaller interactions between the characters, each with their own hidden motivations and allegiances, provides a constant sense of discomfiting conflict. The film is a little long in the tooth in its running time, but all the extra gristle on the plot’s meat is what makes it work. A tighter, more efficient version of this story might be more effective as a blunt instrument of entertainment, but there’s a narrative patience on display that pays off on repeat viewings, especially seventeen years on.

Revisiting The Negotiator today, it’s impossible to ignore Jackson as the lone black protagonist struggling against a sea of white faces who’ve turned on him with startling ease. The supporting cast is chock full of great character actors like Dean Norris and John Spencer, all offering up note perfect approximations of WASP-y mistrust, so the transition from the film’s opening sequence, wherein Danny Roman is “one of the boys” and treated like a reigning king, to the frame-up where accusing eyes shoot daggers his way, is no less disturbing for its utter lack of surprise. None of his friends (even the ones who, the film later reveals, AREN’T crooked) seem to even wrestle with whether or not Roman is guilty. They happily go along with despising someone they once lionized. It’s interesting to note that the first fellow officer to loudly argue against Roman’s guilt is also a person of color. At the time Gray made this movie, its $50 million budget was the highest ever given to a black director. The racial subtext of the proceedings aren’t overt in The Negotiator’s script, but the way passing glances are lensed, the way these relationships are framed, it’s clear Gray wasn’t unaware of the juxtaposition.

Leading roles in mid-level thrillers like this are often thankless, but Jackson’s prowess here is even more unsung than usual. He’s too frequently maligned for repeating what is considered to be the same performance over and over, but as Danny Roman, the cranked-to-11 intensity of Jackson’s on-screen presence is vital to the film’s central conflict. Jackson is equally adept at displaying a quiet sense of menace as he is shrilly expressing fear or frustration. With the walls of police corruption closing around him as such an easy target, his mounting unpredictability is treated as erratic persecution complex, that he’s a man who’s gone too far in the pursuit of truth. There’s something about a black figure being forced to move outside the strictures of the law to do what is right that is presented at odds with how it might come off with a white lead. Jackson provides a fascinating portrait of exaggerated blackness, as if all whites imagine blacks shouting and gesticulating as emphatically as he does in every single scene. His completely authentic and warranted emotional responses are portrayed as scenery chewing when a Sean Penn might have gone even more histrionic in a similar role.

There’s one powerful piece of imagery that was very prominent in the film’s initial marketing material. Roman, standing in the gaping maw of a shattered building window, heart and skull littered with laser scope sights, screaming “what do I have to do to be heard?” That his voice requires Spacey’s Sabian singing back-up to find a suitable audience in the final act says it all. When the dust clears and the actual perpetrators are outed, one of Roman’s many doubters helps him to a much needed ambulance, offering the refrain that “he’s one of ours.” After watching circumstantial evidence twist his friends’ perception of him with no difficulty, it’s clear that one of the little lies the film is built upon was that he ever truly belonged in the first place.

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