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Film / The Negotiator

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He frees hostages for a living. Now he's taking hostages to survive.

"When your friends betray you, sometimes the only people you can trust are strangers."
— Lt. Danny Roman

The Negotiator is a 1998 film starring Samuel L. Jackson as Danny Roman, a Chicago Police Department hostage negotiator framed for the murder of his partner, Nate Roenick. Nate was murdered when he uncovered serious corruption within their unit. Not knowing who he can trust, Danny turns to taking hostages to find the truth about Nate's murder. Unable to trust his friends, he calls upon a stranger, and fellow negotiator, Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), to prove his innocence.

The film was directed by Felix Gary Gray, previously known for Friday (1995) and Set It Off (1996). It was not a box office hit, earning about $44,547,681 in the United States market. It was only the 47th most successful film of its year. However, it gained mostly positive reviews and earned both Gray and Jackson a number of awards.


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This film provides examples of:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: Beck, the squad leader, who makes no secret of his dislike for Danny even before the set-up, can't help but chuckle silently during the "never say no" scene; a sentiment shared by one of the FBI agents.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: The SWAT team uses small vents for running fiber-optic cameras and larger vents for team members. When the title character barricades himself into an office, one of the precautions he takes is to close off the vents as best he can with available materials. Danny also uses it during his escape from the building.
  • The Bad Guys Are Cops: The impetus behind the entire film and the reason Danny asks for Sabian to be brought in, as he's unsure who within his own precinct may be dirty. Also Danny himself, from the perspective of the honest cops involved.
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  • Batman Cold Open: Danny gets one to show how good he is at what he does.
  • Batman Gambit: Done multiple times by Roman, and how they eventually uncover the mastermind setting him up.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Chris Sabian is as close to Actual Pacifist as a cop can get. That said, however, do not test him.
    Sabian: There are many ways to prove your innocence, this is hardly one of them. And now you've taken hostages. You hurt one of them, you burn up any currency you have with me. They're all I care about. Getting you out of here alive... a distant second.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Danny initially thinks Niebaum is responsible for all his trouble, and once the hostage situation ensues, he gets a couple Hannibal Lecture moments to sell him as the villain of the piece. But he's actually very low on the food chain; he simply found out about the conspiracy on his own and extorted them for a cut of the profits, and he was quickly eliminated once this arrangement became a liability.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Sabian gets the murderer to confess by blackmailing him with the nonexistent evidence.
  • Butt-Monkey: Farley basically exists for no other reason than to get utterly humiliated by Danny. The first time his name is mentioned, long before he appears on-screen in any meaningful capacity, is when Danny complains that "Farley screwed up the list!" (Said list being a likes / dislikes inventory for the current hostage-taker - Farley put the man's dog on the "Likes" side, but the guy hates his dog for barking all the time.)
    • Also, Rudy, who is the hostage that Danny most frequently threatens to shoot
  • Clear My Name: Danny takes the hostages to clear himself of stealing from his precinct's disability fund and murdering his partner.
  • Closed Door Rapport: The movie milks this for all it's worth—both Danny Roman and Chris Sabian are introduced doing this. Roman is talking with a gunman. Sabian is talking with his wife.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: We are first introduced to Chris Sabian as he is failing to persuade his wife to come out of the bedroom in which she has locked herself. Summed up succinctly with this line:
    Chris Sabian: You know, I once talked a man out of blowing up the Sears Tower, but I cannot talk my wife out of a bedroom or my kid off a phone.
    Lisa Sabian: That's because nobody's standing behind you with a big gun!
    Chris Sabian: Yeah well, That's debatable.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Well, verbal battle at least, between Danny and Farley. It's not even a fair fight, since Farley is a last minute substitute since their best negotiator is the one taking hostages. Danny reacts with disbelief when Farley calls him up on the phone and he starts on the standard negotiation lines, decides to give Farley a chance to talk him down, and what follows is an emasculating verbal dissection.
    Danny: Never say no to a hostage taker. It's in the manual. Eliminate no from your vocabulary, Farley. Never use no, don't, won't, or can't. It eliminates options and leave no choice but to shoot someone. Now lets practice, if you say no again, I'll kill somebody. ... Now, I'd like a sub machine gun so I can blow everyone in here away.
    Farley: [stammering] I'll look into that.
    Danny: Good! You're doing good Farley! You ever cheat on your wife, Farley? Don't say no!
    Farley: [stammering worse now] I'll have to look into that Danny.
    Danny: You ever... dress up like a schoolgirl and get your ass spanked? [Farley tries and fails to come up with a way to say no without using the word] Jesus... I got nothing against you dressing up like a little girl, but I did not know that about you, Farley.
  • Covert Distress Code: At the beginning, Danny flashes hand signals (1, 2, and 3 fingers) to alert the sniper team when to fire. The "1" signal is worked into his conversation with the hostage taker as a "wait a minute" gesture, while the others are displayed with his back turned to the suspect.
  • Cowboy Cop: Danny, much to Beck's annoyance.
  • Destruction Equals Off-Switch: Used twice in the movie by The Dirty Cops. In the first instance, the IAB workstation is shot by Allen, Argento & Hellman to destroy the evidence. They even avert Computer = Monitor by targeting the tower, not the monitor, which not only makes sure Danny can't turn it back on, but has a fairly likely chance of irrevocably destroying the data (even if they missed the hard drive, it's not like Danny has the time to disassemble the thing). Later, Frost, snaps some floppy disks in half which had copies of the evidence before also shooting the computer in the same fashion.
  • Death Glare: All the cops who arrive to Niebaum's house give one to Frost when they realize that he was the one who masterminded the embezzelment scheme and killed Nathan Roenick.
  • Dirty Cop: Several of them. Allen, Argento, Hellman and Frost form the conspiracy. Niebaum takes a bribe to hide the evidence of it. Beck, however, is clean.
  • Driven to Suicide: Averted when Frost discovers he's been outed as the conspiracy mastermind and attempts it; he's shot in the shoulder before he can do it.
    Beck: You're not getting off that easy, you son of a bitch.
  • Empty Cop Threat: After the hostages have been released Maggie initially gives Chief Travis the silent treatment when he asks where Danny has gone, but relents when he threatens to charge her with obstruction of justice.
  • Engineered Public Confession: How Danny finally gets the man responsible.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Subverted when Chris Sabian pretends to kill Danny Roman for a cut in the villains' profits.
  • False Flag Operation: Inverted and then subverted. Sabian gets a friend to pretend to be the mole to convince Danny to release the hostages and give himself up (and possibly reveal if there are conspirators in the police department). His plan is successful at first, as Sabian has gathered enough information from Danny to know some of the mole's characteristics. But ultimately his plan is foiled when Danny discovers from Niebaum's files who the real mole is.
    • The second breach attempt is really just a cover for the corrupt cops to assassinate Niebaum and destroy incriminating evidence.
  • He Knows Too Much: First Roenick, then Niebaum.
  • Hero Antagonist: Primarily Sabian who is the Deuteragonist of the film, but really the entire team trying to take Roman down qualify because they really do believe that he's a Dirty Cop who stole their money and murdered his own partner. Well... aside from the ones who framed him for it, of course. Also Beck pretty much screams "Rabid Cop" with his constant attempts to have SWAT charge into the building and shoot Roman, but is the one cop in a leading position during the stand-off (other than Sabian and Chief Travis) that isn't crooked.
  • Hero Insurance: Roman takes several innocent people hostage during the incident as he fights to clear his name. The movie does not imply that he will ever face consequences for doing so. Even if you have been framed for theft and murder, taking innocent people hostage is still a crime. It's strongly implied that the hostages would speak on Danny's behalf, and given the misconduct of the corrupt cops, it's likely he would come out of it in decent shape.
  • Hollywood Law: Averted. Danny takes action before things get that far.
  • Hollywood Tactics: At the end, when Frost comes out of Niebaum's house, he is surrounded by other cops on every side. Who then point guns at him. When Beck shoots him, Danny and Sabian are clearly directly behind him. Nobody has a clear shot without a friendly behind him.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: The film actually Deconstructs the concept of the Framed Hero finding out who his "real" friends are when things hit the fan. When Danny is ordered to turn in his badge, he gives the standard "You know me better than this" line usually made in this situation, but later on Sabian (correctly) points out that belief in Danny's innocence or guilt in this situation is irrelevant, the cops are doing their jobs by following the evidence where it leads them (and trying to neutralize an angry man who has taken hostages). The one friend who does appear somewhat supportive of Danny throughout the whole mess is really the villain who set him up in the first place.
  • If I Do Not Return: When things are going badly and Danny Roman believes that he will soon be killed by the corrupt cops, he asks Maggie for a favor.
    Will you tell my wife something for me? Tell her I was trying to keep my promise.
    • One of Danny's demands is for a department funeral if he dies.
  • Insistent Terminology: Maggie is Niebaum's assistant, not secretary. Backfires on her when Danny realizes she might have more information than he initially suspects.
  • Internal Affairs: Inspector Niebaum. The whole hostage situation takes place in the IA office.
  • Is That a Threat?:
    Sabian: I'm the only thing standing between you and an army that's itching to walk in here and take you out. So you tell me something, Danny. Why should I get in their way? Make me believe why I should deal with you ever again.
    Roman: I still have hostages. They can still be punished for your mistakes.
    Sabian: Was that a threat? Did you just threaten me?
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Danny threatens to push Niebaum (who is handcuffed to a chair) into a room where the bad cops could get to him to get him talking.
  • Jerkass: Beck was a dick even before Danny was setup. This, plus his gung ho attitude when the hostage crisis erupts, suggests he's involved in the conspiracy. He's not.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Between the FBI and Chicago PD, as the building is a federal one and the FBI allow them jurisdiction until their screw ups compel them to take over the situation.
  • Large Ham: Samuel L. Jackson goes to town with this after the failed breach, standing at the shattered window in front of the police helicopters and shouting for them to take his blood, knowing full well they won't shoot him on national television.
  • Living Lie Detector: Danny gives Niebaum a crash course in how "real cops" pick apart liars. He's rather disconcerted, however, when he flat out asks Niebaum who really did it, and Niebaum says "You did, Danny" and Danny can tell the guy honestly believes it.
  • Lovable Rogue: Rudy Timmons is a two-bit con artist whose rap sheet includes credit card and insurance fraud but he's affable enough and helps Roman piece together the fraud.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: When the crooked cops shoot Niebaum they engage in a drawn out firefight with Danny to make it look like the guy just got caught in the crossfire. Danny points out to Sabian that he has "three shots to center mass" obviously indicating murder.
  • Mood Whiplash: The don't say no phone scene.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Played with in-universe. Danny wants everyone to think he's shot one of the officers who attempted the first raid, thus demonstrating that he is to be taken seriously. But eventually reveals it was staged.
    • At the end, after Beck shoots Frost to prevent him from killing himself, Danny picks up Frost's gun and is about to give him a Coup de Grâce. He looks around and, seeing his wife and all of his friends, drops the gun.
  • No Indoor Voice: It is a movie with Sam Jackson, so we get some more screaming gems such as:
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Played with. What really sells Sabian's bluff towards Frost is that he shoots Danny in the abdomen. Danny is then shown lying on the floor with blood pooling from under him. Afterwards, Sabian helps Danny out of the house, and Danny is able to stand on his own briefly, although he needs help from several cops to make it to the ambulance and obviously isn't just going to walk it off. In reality, a gunshot wound to the abdomen can cause a great deal of damage, since there are a lot of important organs there (Sabian seemed to be going for a "stay to the side and don't go too deep" approach, but guns are not knives). Sabian points out that if Frost had shot him, it would have been worse.
    Sabian: I figured you'd rather be shot by me than by him.
  • Pet the Dog: Beck get several in the finale. After being a Red Herring for the mastermind and a general jerkass throughout the movie he shoots Frost to prevent him from committing suicide, helps an injured Danny to the waiting ambulance and orders the street cleared so Danny can be rushed to the hospital.
    • Background character Markus gets a nice one. Towards the finale he gives a pair of keys to Danny while also giving him a trusting handshake squeeze. Not bad considering he initially thought Danny had murdered Scott.
  • Prove I Am Not Bluffing: Danny invokes this trope when he fakes shooting one of the hostages.
  • Put Down Your Gun and Step Away: Danny, to a whole room full of cops. The result is a desk covered in guns and handcuffs. Justified in that Danny is a crack shot (which he demonstrates by intentionally missing - by about four inches - a cop who was trying to line up a shot from a high walkway) and is standing in a doorway, preventing anybody from flanking him.
  • Red Herring: SWAT Commander Beck seems like an easy pick for the person who is setting up Danny; he is a hardass, no-bull character who wants to immediately take out Roman with a tactical squad, and is played by David Morse, who has made a living playing villainous roles. But he's not. He's only trying to take down Roman because he believes he's the culprit, and he not only arrests the true villain, but also keeps him from committing suicide to escape his fate.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Danny Roman (Red) and Chris Sabian (Blue) for the negotiators; Chief Travis (Blue) and Commander Beck (Red) for the senior officers.
  • The Reveal: Frost, who was a largely background character, is the mastermind behind of the theft of the disability fund and Danny being framed.
    • Danny never killed Scott.
    • Roenick was the informant.
    • Niebaum took a bribe from the conspiracy to conceal the evidence of it.
  • Rudely Hanging Up: After Roman executes a hostage and calls the negotiator for his next demands, Sabian hangs up the phone on him several times even though Roman still has hostages, both to signal his anger and to make it clear that he will refuse further negotiations if people get hurt.
    Sabian: Relax. He'll call back.
  • Sanity Slippage: Subverted. Danny only acts increasingly unhinged after the failed breach and pretends to shoot Scott to make the police think it isn't worth risking the other hostages' lives with another breach. He stays relatively cool and in control throughout the ordeal, which is justified since he's a cop with decades of experience in tense situations.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Danny.
  • Shoot the Hostage:
    • Danny shooting one of the officers he was holding hostage. Subverted - he faked it in order to get the police to take him seriously.
    • The conspirators silence Niebaum.
    • Frost takes himself hostage by putting a gun to his own head in hopes of getting the SWAT team to back down. Beck foils his plan by shooting him in the shoulder.
  • Smug Snake: Niebaum, until Danny finally outsmarts him.
  • Stockholm Syndrome/Lima Syndrome - Justified; the hostages come over to his side once they realize he's being set up, and he's apologetic about having to put them through it all to clear his name.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailers show that Sabian eventually sides with Danny. By using a line that isn't even in the final cut of the film!
  • Turn in Your Badge: Danny is given this order by the Chief before his meeting with the DA. Getting it back is one of his demands.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: There are a whole bunch of them. Sabian both gives and receives several throughout the movie.
  • Wrongful Accusation Insurance