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The Negotiator (Blu-ray)
Warner Brothers / 1998 / 139 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: November 10, 2009
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Reviewed by David Krauss
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
'The Negotiator' scored only a modest box office success during its 1998 theatrical run, but has since developed a devoted following. And it's easy to see why. Its well-crafted script, first-rate performances, and nicely choreographed action scenes keep F. Gary Gray's film on solid ground and away from the bulk of clichés and outlandish situations that capsize other entries in the thriller genre. Though it may not be the brightest bulb in the action movie chandelier, 'The Negotiator' outsmarts and outclasses many of its competitors, and remains a tight, absorbing picture more than a decade after its release.
At its core, 'The Negotiator' is a fairly typical tale of police corruption, but a clever twist puts an engaging spin on this mystery-thriller. What if, the film asks, a veteran hostage negotiator must take a few hostages of his own in order to clear his name after he's framed for a crime he didn't commit? That's exactly the situation in which Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) finds himself after he discovers his partner, who's been covertly investigating police pension fund fraud, shot to death in a parked car. All the evidence points to Danny, the department's resident loose cannon, whose renegade tactics often raise his superiors' eyebrows and blood pressure. And as the noose grows tighter around his neck, the desperate Danny goes off the rails again, holing himself up in the office of internal affairs with a few key hostages, so he can stall for time, infiltrate the thick web of cop corruption tainting the force, and hopefully prove his innocence. Now the police are forced to negotiate with the negotiator, who can predict their every move, knows every manipulative trick in their playbook, and won't fall for any of them.
'The Negotiator' is simultaneously slick and gritty, but possesses more depth than most of Gray's other efforts, such as 'A Man Apart' and 'The Italian Job.' It's fascinating to watch the chess match unfold between Danny and Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), the master negotiator who's tasked with resolving the standoff, and how both men deal with the mounting pressure the police and hovering FBI exert over them. Though the film doesn't pummel us with non-stop action set pieces, Gray's excellent visual sense, honed in the world of music videos, enhances the well-crafted scenes, each of which packs a wallop. At 139 minutes, 'The Negotiator' is long, but Gray keeps the movie on a tight rein, and with a layered screenplay that artfully develops characters and relationships, and sprinkles in generous helpings of humor, the time flies by.
Jackson and Spacey both file excellent portrayals, and while they make an oddball couple, they produce a strangely endearing bond over the film's rollercoaster course. The success of 'The Negotiator,' however, hinges on its colorful supporting characters, who spice up – and nearly steal – almost every scene. Without the likes of David Morse, Ron Rifkin, John Spencer, J.T. Walsh (in his final role), a young Paul Giamatti, and Siobhan Fallon, the film would lack the crusty sparkle that really puts it over and keeps us engaged. Giamatti and Fallon especially shine as a sniveling snitch and petulant secretary, respectively.
'The Negotiator' is a fun ride while it lasts, but like most films of this sort, doesn't have much lasting impact. Still, it tells its clever story with style and vigor, boasts an array of fine performances, and keeps both our senses and brains engaged and stimulated throughout. And there aren't a whole lot of thrillers that can do that.
Stunning. That pretty much sums up the image quality of Warner's 1080p/VC-1 transfer of 'The Negotiator,' which significantly improves on the studio's previous standard-def DVD. In a side-by-side comparison, the Blu-ray rendering provides a much cleaner, crisper, more vibrant picture. Gone are the stray marks that dotted the print, and while color temperature and contrast remain similar, the sizeable jump in clarity provides that elusive visual pop many other high-def discs lack. Fine details leap forth even in low light, and dazzling close-ups expose every facial crease, scar, and pore with razor sharpness. Though some fluctuations do exist – a few scenes exhibit some faint noise on solid backgrounds, while others flaunt a coarser texture – this is a predominately smooth, silky presentation that maintains a film-like feel despite the absence of noticeable grain.
Color is used sparingly, but always provides a vivid splash of emphasis without appearing artificially saturated. Rich and inky blacks lend the picture marvelous weight, and fleshtones are always spot-on. Contrast is generally good, although a couple of sequences seem a shade bright, which somewhat flattens their dimension. Best of all, no digital enhancements muck up the film's natural look.
Those on the fence about upgrading shouldn't hesitate to take the leap. For a 10-year-old catalogue title, 'The Negotiator' looks superb, and will thrill both diehard fans and those new to this absorbing drama of police corruption.
Full of dynamism and nuance, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track hits the ball out of the park. The well-balanced mix possesses exceptional range, crystal clarity, and enough surround activity to thrill discriminating action movie junkies. Though the rears aren't always engaged, they get a good workout, emitting a host of terrific effects, from subtle ambience to powerful artillery accents. Seamless pans keep us in the thick of the story (and are especially noticeable during helicopter flyovers), while solid bass frequencies help create highly immersive sonic sequences. (One particular knuckle rap on a car window gave me a surprising jolt.) Dialogue is always properly prioritized and easy to comprehend, and Graeme Revell's pulsating music score enjoys fine front-channel separation, as well as lush low-end tones and excellent depth and presence.
When coupled with the excellent video, this superior track makes 'The Negotiator' a memorable home video experience, and proves how high-def video and lossless audio can substantially impact and improve a catalogue title. Bravo, Warner!
The paltry extras from the previous DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition, and the content is negligible at best. A retrospective featurette and director's commentary would have been nice additions, but no such luck. All material remains in standard definition.
- Featurette: "The Eleventh Hour: Stories from Real-Life Negotiators" (SD, 7 minutes) – An LAPD crisis counselor relates a few anecdotes from the field that illustrate the negotiating tactics used in hostage and individual situations. If you're thinking of joining the force, you might want to check this piece out; otherwise, skip it.
- Featurette: "On Location: Why Chicago" (SD, 16 minutes) – Director F. Gary Gray dominates this ho-hum featurette that examines the unique texture the Chicago setting brings to the film. The Windy City provided Gray with "a wider palette to paint," and he and his collaborators discuss, among other things, scouting locations, and how they "set siege" to Chicago while filming. Behind-the-scenes footage spices up this all-too-familiar bit of fluff.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) – The original preview looks pretty banged up in standard-def.
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A crackling story, stylish presentation, and a gallery of interesting characters help make 'The Negotiator' one of the better police dramas of the past decade. (The action scenes are pretty sweet, too.) It's also one helluva good-looking and sounding Blu-ray disc, featuring stellar video and audio transfers that play well on high-end systems and greatly improve upon the previous standard-def DVD. Supplements are thin, but the movie's replay value alone is strong enough to make 'The Negotiator' a worthy purchase.
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