Just as Heat tossed De Niro and Pacino together in a tense psychological face-off, so The Negotiator pitches gung-ho Samuel L Jackson against hard-nut Kevin Spacey. But while Michael Mann charted a traditional crime story of good guy versus bad guy, director Gray relies on an off-centre narrative of good versus good. What gives this confrontation a compelling slant is that Jackson's betrayed cop frees hostages for a living. And, as one of Chicago's finest negotiators, he's in the unique position of knowing all the procedures his colleagues will use to flush him out.
It's a neat premise, albeit a slow-burning one. The scene is dramatically set with a mini-siege in which Jackson rails against his superiors to rescue a girl from her shotgun-wielding mad-dad. Yes, it's an unrelated incident in a much larger guess-the-villain plot, but the tense resolution establishes some of the minor players (Morse's impatient SWAT team co-ordinator; Rifkin's trusty old-timer; Spencer's police chief) and shows how the police tackle a siege (fibre-optic cameras, rooftop snipers and armed abseilers). If they can't talk you out, then they'll blast you out.
Despite the explosive moments, Gray avoids relying on mindless action splatter to see it all through. Instead, the simmering story is dominated by the Jackson/Spacey confrontation: Jackson wants to prove his innocence, Spacey to free the hostages. Their characters are the juiciest roles, with Jackson's adrenalin-pumped, wrongfully-accused hero a direct contrast to Spacey's calm, indifferent negotiator. The pair are excellent, creating an instant chemistry and clearly enjoying the chance to dig into a script that fuses high-powered drama (Jackson defending himself and his hostages from an impromptu SWAT team raid) with moments of humour, such as Sabian moaning: "I once talked a guy out of blowing up the Sears Tower but I can't talk my wife out of the bedroom or my kid off the phone."
Unfortunately, the A-list leads are the only fully-rounded characters: the miscellaneous rotten cops and hostages (Walsh's sneering Internal Affairs geek; Paul Giamatti's comic relief fraudster) are little more than sketchily-drawn wisps, defined by and built around the siege crisis. These off-the-peg extras, along with a pile of lazy genre formulas (Red Herring villain, the wife who wants her husband to give up his `dangerous' work) almost drag the whole picture down. But for every cliché, Gray cancels it out with a new twist or scene-saving gag, propelling the dialogue-heavy plot towards its inevitably violent conclusion.
There's much to like here, but while the heart of the film is an entertaining and funny psychological one-on-one, the echoes of crime thrillers past mean there's less impact than the star billing suggests. Yet the charismatic presence of Jackson and Spacey is the saving grace. But be warned: The Negotiator is about half-an-hour too long. And two hours, 20 minutes of gun-happy chit-chat is a hell of a lot to swallow.