Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Art of the Deal

By Susan Ellis

AUGUST 10, 1998:  The key to being an effective police negotiator, we learn in The Negotiator, is to be prepared. They make cheat sheets on their subjects with notes containing the name of the person’s dog, a work history – anything to get out of the situation safely. If the negotiator knows that the subject’s favorite color is blue, it better be blue, because if it isn’t, a slug could end up in the skull of a hostage.

Moviegoers with a thriller or two under their belts already have their own version of a cheat sheet. Going in, they can assume certain things: The heroes will live, guns will be shot, tense moments will be played out and resolved to make way for other such moments. It’s up to the filmmakers to persuade the audience off the ledge through crafty casting, bigger action, and plot twists so clever they never see them coming.

The Negotiator, directed by F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, Friday) and written by newcomers James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox, takes to the table a pair of fine actors, Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, a respect for fine details, and a few surprising turns – but just a few. In the end, the deal works down to a draw. Even steven.

At the beginning of the film, Chicago cop Danny Roman (Jackson) is working to finesse a crazed man to remove the barrel of a shotgun away from the head of a little girl. Against department rules, Roman puts himself into the situation, and then saves the day. Later, at home with his new wife, he is scolded for acting so foolishly. Don’t worry, he tells her, he’s done with that sort of behavior and “put crazy on the bus.”

If crazy is on the bus, then exactly what is it that remains with Roman when barely 24 hours later he’s gone and taken his own hostages? In his very own police department, no less.

The previous evening Roman’s beloved partner has turned up dead – just after they had a private conversation regarding missing department funds and conspiracy involving unnamed coworkers and members of internal affairs. That dawn, Roman’s house is swarming with cops who uncover incriminating papers. Roman is going down, but not without a fight. His approach is to use what he knows. He marches into the internal-affairs office and confronts Inspector Niebaum (J.T. Walsh). Guns get pulled and Roman takes Niebaum, a secretary, and a snitch hostage. His requests are simple: He wants to know who his partner’s informant was, what Niebaum’s part in the crime is, and, because Roman doesn’t know whom to trust, he wants everything to be done by Chris Sabien (Spacey), a negotiator from another precinct.

The crux of The Negotiator lies in exactly who is in on the theft. Undecipherable hints are scattered throughout. In the opening sequence, a photo montage of Roman’s cop life is played. There he is at a wedding, surrounded by his fellow cops, and more images show him smiling away where just inches away stand those who’ve either got his back or want to stab precisely there. Could officer Adam Beck (David Morse), the one most against Roman’s methods, be in on the plot? What does the supportive Chief Al Travis (John Spencer) know? And how can Sabien successfully defuse the situation when any number of the cops he’s working with want to see Roman in a pool of blood?

It’s something to chew on, and there’s ample opportunity to do so as Roman and Sabien bat their strategies back and forth. For Spacey and Jackson, their parts are give-me’s, something they could do in their sleep. Jackson has got a handle on this type of role. He’s a man on a short leash, just daring someone to push him. In fact, there’s a scene recalling his “say what” speech from Pulp Fiction. Spacey, on the other hand, is more even-tempered, maybe a touch too prissy to be running around gunfire and mayhem. They make an intriguing pair, these two, but there are some draggy moments in The Negotiator that even they can’t work around.


BASEketball

Sometimes I think sports should be abolished. I can appreciate the athleticism and the teamwork. I don’t even mind the unspeakable gobs of money professional athletes make. It’s the side effect of sports, the one that erupts in sores of insipid arguments – such as the one I heard proclaiming that Peyton Manning would have damn well gotten the Heisman Trophy had the South won the Civil War.

And thence BASEketball has sprung. From the makers of the Naked Guns and starring South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, BASEketball is a satire on this sort of mindset – though primarily it’s just a string of fairly lazy sight gags.

The premise behind BASEketball has Stone and Parker as two best-friend losers, Coop and Remer respectively, who invent a new game that melds the games of baseball and basketball. In short order, a millionaire (Ernest Borgnine) takes the sport nationwide, dies, and leaves the team to Coop. Their team, the Milwaukee Beers, must win the next season’s championship or ownership goes to the millionaire’s widow (Jenny McCarthy), who has struck up a deal with a rival team owner who wants to change the very rules that make the game unique. Meanwhile, Coop and Remer are competing for the affections of Jenna (Yasmine Bleeth), the sexy, good-hearted director of a children’s charity.

BASEketball does get in a few good jabs about the state of sports – the corporate-named arenas, the incessant town-switching, etc. The game itself is a joke, since it requires skills that only the truly slovenly and boorish possess. It also takes a somewhat amusing swipe at TV (Road Kill). Of course, for every halfway thoughtful joke, there are three more involving either vomit, pubic hair, or the like. What exactly can be said about a film that includes Viking-garbed midgets spinning plates? Borgnine singing “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt”? Stone and Parker making out?

It does amount to something. Robert Stack, for one, could barely keep from cracking up during his cameo.


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