Nothing hits like a good 90s thriller. The decade had a bountiful harvest of classics in the genre, but one such entry often goes overlooked. 1998’s The Negotiator stars Samuel L. Jackson as a hostage negotiator who, after being framed by his own department, takes a hostage of his own in a maverick attempt to clear his name.
Samuel L. Jackson is a rogue hostage negotiator in The Negotiator, now streaming on Netflix.
Jackson’s character, Lieutenant Danny Roman, is the best hostage negotiator in Chicago PD’s east precinct, so he knows the drill. His inside-out knowledge of the situation makes him a formidable opponent for his fellow officers. As Roman attempts to uncover an embezzlement scandal and sniff out the cops who framed him, he agrees to communicate only with one man: west precinct negotiator Chris Sabian.
Played by Kevin Spacey, Sabian is an intelligent, no-nonsense character whose penetrating gaze cuts straight to the truth. As the negotiator duo goes head to head, the scandal soon embroils them both as the truth yields deadly consequences.
The Negotiator is loosely based on the true story of a hostage negotiator in St. Louis, Missouri, who similarly took a hostage in order to clear his name of a crime he was framed for. The intriguing concept was championed by producer David Hoberman, who was fascinated by the moral dilemma inherent in the story.
Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson had a pact that each would star in The Negotiator only if the other did.
Screenwriters James DeMonaco (The Purge) and Kevin Fox (Lie to Me) were hired to turn the concept into a viable screenplay, with director F. Gary Gray boarding to helm the project. Up to that point, Gray’s career was largely defined by his work directing music videos, as well as the feature films Friday and Set if Off.
Before shooting The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey had worked together briefly on the set of A Time to Kill. Excited to reunite, the two agreed with each other that they would do the film as long as the other did. Their non-verbal contract turned into a set of movie deals that had The Negotiator moving forward with a full head of steam.
Warner Bros. released The Negotiator in the thick of the summer blockbuster season. On July 29, 1998, it opened in theaters crowded with hits like Saving Private Ryan, The Parent Trap, and There’s Something About Mary. By the end of its run, The Negotiator amassed roughly $88 million against a budget of about $43 million; after marketing costs, the film reportedly lost about $13 million.
The box office return on The Negotiator did not quite meet expectations, but those who saw the film received it favorably. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film carries 74 percent and 79 percent approval ratings from critics and audiences, respectively. Today, a complex legacy colors this fading film.
Kevin Spacey’s Controversies
In 2017, Kevin Spacey experienced a dramatic fall from grace in the public eye. Overnight, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movie stars lost his career in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations that quickly snowballed as more and more people came forward to out Spacey for his inappropriate behavior.
The accusation not only halted Spacey’s future projects, but cast a shadow on his past work. Films like The Negotiator were instantly tarnished by the star’s personal life, retroactively altering the perception of the many Spacey films considered modern American classics.
Just this past summer, Kevin Spacey resolved the legal trouble brought on by the allegations, with acquittals in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The actor has stated his readiness to make a comeback in the industry he once dominated, but the official verdicts have done little to soften public distrust of Spacey.
Many of his characters, including the part he plays in The Negotiator, are calculating and manipulative. Spacey’s natural intelligence lends itself well to these roles, but the demeanors and actions of his characters do not help his image.
For some, Kevin Spacey films are strictly off-limits. Others are willing to embrace the actor’s work without embracing the actor himself. For those in the latter camp, The Negotiator is an interesting film to return to.
While it is not as tight as some of its better-known contemporaries, The Negotiator puts forth interesting ideas and powerful performances from Jackson and Spacey. This well-crafted piece of late 90s popcorn cinema is streaming now on Netflix – if you can talk your way into it.