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by Jim Wunderle

"The Negotiator"

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey

Rated: R

Director F. Gary Gray's name is not exactly a Hollywood household word, but he has made a couple of fairly interesting films.

In 1995 he directed rapper Ice Cube in a comedy that Cube wrote titled "Friday." Ice Cube proved to be a decent actor in "Boyz N the Hood" and "Trespass," but he overplayed his hand when he wrote and produced "Friday" most critics likened the film to a made-for-cable movie-of-the-week.

Gray did his best, but if the material isn't there to begin with, even a great director can't fake a film for two hours.

Later in '95,

he directed a better, but no more commercially accepted, film, "Set It Off." This was the story of four working-class black women who, when faced with the financial realities of trying to raise families on minimum wage, turn to robbing banks as a supplemental source of income. Critics liked "Set It Off" a lot, but it never got the widespread distribution it deserved.

With his third feature, Gray steps into the big league. Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey are two of the finest actors working in film today, and the idea for "The Negotiator" is a good one.

Sadly, though, the writing doesn't sustain the plot sufficiently, and after the first half hour, the film bogs down into a no-surprises stereotypical "good cops gone bad" melodrama.

Jackson plays Danny Roman, a Chicago cop who specializes in "negotiating" with perpetrators who are holding hostages. In the first, tense scenes we see Roman in action, saving the life of a young girl and risking his own to bring a hostage situation to a close.

The main plot kicks in when Danny's partner who is investigating a department-wide streak of corruption is found murdered. All the facts point to Danny as the killer, but of course, he is being set up.

So, in a situation such as this, what's a hostage negotiator going to do?

Why, take hostages, of course. He does so in a Chicago federal building. The hostages range from a small-time hood/informant to bigwigs in the Chicago Police Department. Danny's demands are simple: He wants the cops to find his partner's killer and expose everyone involved in the corruption scam.

He also demands to talk to Chris Sabian (played by Kevin Spacey) who's another crackerjack negotiator from a different precinct. When Sabian asks Danny, "Why me?" Jackson is forced to deliver stilted dialogue like, "When your friends betray you, sometimes the only people you can trust are strangers."

Gee, I guess that's right. And by the way, "A sack of flour will make a mighty big biscuit."

The remainder of the film is straight out of Screenwriting 101, and even the little twists late in the final act are hackneyed clich?s.

With classic films like "Serpico," "Prince of the City" and "A Touch of Evil" ingrained in our collective movie mind, it really is difficult to come up with a plot that seems fresh and new, while still staying true to the genre.

Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

A case in point would be last year's "L.A. Confidential," a film that had a familiar plot but gave us a great number of new angles and variations on the theme.

Fans of Spacey and Jackson will want to check out "The Negotiator" both actors do their utmost considering what they have to work with but overall, the film disappoints.

(Jim Wunderle works at Associated Video Producers and is a Springfield free-lance writer and musician.)

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