Samuel L. Jackson is a Chicago hostage negotiator framed for the murder of his partner. Determined to find the truth and unravel a conspiracy before he's dragged through the legal system, he takes a few interested parties hostage, then demands that he speak to another of the city's negotiators, an uninvolved stranger played by Kevin Spacey. From there, it's a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, with heroes and villains kept uncertain and hot-headed SWAT teams waiting at every turn. In many ways, The Negotiator is a strictly by-the-numbers thriller: Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Set It Off) falls back on trailer-ready catch phrases ("I'm NOT going to jail today!"), slow-motion pans across police badges, and a ludicrously jacked-up Graeme Revell score. But The Negotiator is one of the best by-the-numbers thrillers you'll see this year, thanks to a hot-shot cast (aiding the ever-reliable Jackson and Spacey are marvelous character actors like Paul Giamatti and the late J.T. Walsh) and pacing that never lets the audience pause to take it all in. Scenes involving Jackson's panicked wife never devolve into hackneyed hokum, while the dialogue sounds plausible coming out of the mouths of smart actors. Jackson and Spacey's acting styles—the former blustery, the latter cool and deadpan—complement each other nicely, and the movie somehow never drags. If you can get past the fact that many of The Negotiator's previews give away plot twists that take place three-quarters of the way into its running time, you should have little trouble getting sucked into the film's compelling premise, not to mention performances that are solid across the board.
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