Unbranded

The Negotiator [VHS] [VHS Tape] [1998]

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Although it eventually runs out of smart ideas and resorts to a typically explosive finale, this above-average thriller rises above its formulaic limitations on the strength of powerful performances by Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Both play Chicago police negotiators with hotshot reputations, but when Jackson's character finds himself falsely accused of embezzling funds from a police pension fund, he's so thoroughly framed that he must take extreme measures to prove his innocence. He takes hostages in police headquarters to buy time and plan his strategy, demanding that Spacey be brought in to mediate with him as an army of cops threatens to attack, and a media circus ensues. Both negotiators know how to get into the other man's thoughts, and this intellectual showdown allows both Spacey and Jackson to ignite the screen with a burst of volatile intensity. Director F. Gary Gray is disadvantaged by an otherwise predictable screenplay, but he has a knack for building suspense and is generous to a fine supporting cast, including Paul Giamatti as one of Jackson's high-strung hostages, and the late J.T. Walsh in what would sadly be his final big-screen role. The movie should have trusted its compelling characters a little more, probing their psyches more intensely to give the suspense a deeper dramatic foundation, but it's good enough to give two great actors a chance to strut their stuff.A --Jeff Shannon