Lieutenant Danny Roman, a top Chicago Police Department hostage negotiator, is told by his partner, Nate Roenick, that according to an informant (whom he refuses to name) members of their own unit are defrauding large amounts of money from the department's disability fund, for which Roman is a board member. When Roman goes for another meeting, he finds Roenick dead seconds before other police arrive, pinning Roman as the prime suspect.
Matters become worse for Roman when Internal Affairs investigator Terence Niebaum, whom Roenick's informant suspected of involvement in the embezzlement, is assigned to investigate the murder. After the gun that killed Roenick is linked to a case Roman had worked on, Niebaum and other investigators search Roman's house and discover papers for an offshore bank account with a deposit equal to one of the amounts of money embezzled. Roman is forced to surrender his gun and badge, and his colleagues are skeptical of his protests of innocence. With embezzlement and homicide charges pending, Roman storms into Niebaum's office and demands answers about who set him up. When Niebaum refuses to answer, Roman takes Niebaum, his administrative assistant Maggie, police commander Grant Frost, and weak willed con man Rudy Timmons as hostages.
With the building evacuated and placed under siege by his own CPD unit and the FBI, Roman issues his conditions: locating Roenick's informant and summoning lieutenant Chris Sabian, the city's other top negotiator. Roman believes he can trust Sabian, because he talks for as long as possible, sees tactical action as a last resort, and being from another precinct eliminates him as a suspect in the disability fund scheme. Sabian clashes with the CPD, but is given temporary command of the unit after they hastily attempt a breach that goes awry, resulting in two additional officers becoming Roman's hostages.
Roman trades Frost to Sabian in exchange for restoring the building's electricity. With the help from Rudy and Maggie, Roman accesses Niebaum's computer and pieces together the scheme; corrupt officers submitted false disability claims that were processed by an unknown insider on the disability fund's board. He also discovers recordings of wiretaps, including a conversation that suggests Roenick was meeting his informant before he was killed. Sabian, using the information Roman provided, claims to have located Roenick's informant in a bid to get Roman to release the hostages. Roman realizes Sabian is bluffing when Niebaum's files reveal Roenick himself was the IAD informant.
When Roman threatens to expose Niebaum in an open window, leaving him vulnerable to sniper fire, Niebaum admits that Roenick gave him wiretaps implicating three of Roman's squad mates in the embezzlement scheme. When Niebaum confronted the guilty officers, he received a bribe from them to cover up their crimes while Roenick refused to take it, which led to his death. Niebaum says he does not know who the inside ringleader is, but that he has the taps corroborating the three officers' guilt. The same corrupt officers have secretly entered the room via the air vents under the pretext of being part of a team to take Roman out in case he started killing hostages; upon hearing Niebaum's confession, they open fire and kill Niebaum before he can reveal where he has hidden the wiretaps. Roman single-handedly fends them and the rest of his squad off, using the flashbangs he seized from the two officers in the previous failed breach.
Believing that Sabian and the police cannot resolve the situation, the FBI assume jurisdiction over the operation, cease negotiations, relieve Sabian of his command, and order a full breach. Sabian begins to believe in Roman's innocence and gives him a chance to prove his case: while the FBI and SWAT raid the building and rescue the hostages, Roman disguises himself as a SWAT member and escapes. Roman and Sabian proceed to Niebaum's house, but they cannot find the wiretaps. The police arrive and the corrupt officers enter the house, but they back off as Frost enters and tries to talk Roman down. Sabian observes Frost discreetly taking one of the guns, and realizes that Frost is the ringleader of the conspiracy and Roenick's killer.
In front of Frost, Sabian seemingly kills Roman and offers to destroy the evidence they have uncovered in return for a cut of Frost's take. Frost agrees and effectively makes a full admission to his and the other three officers' crimes. When Frost exits the house, he discovers that Roman survived the attack and used a police radio microphone to broadcast his confession to the police surrounding the area. Frost attempts to commit suicide, only to be foiled and arrested by the police. As Roman is loaded into an ambulance, Sabian gives his badge to him and leaves.
- Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Danny Roman
- Kevin Spacey as Lieutenant Chris Sabian
- David Morse as Commander Adam Beck
- Ron Rifkin as Commander Grant Frost
- John Spencer as Chief Al Travis
- J. T. Walsh as Inspector Terence Niebaum
- Siobhan Fallon as Maggie
- Paul Giamatti as Rudy Timmons
- Regina Taylor as Karen Roman
- Bruce Beatty as Markus
- Michael Cudlitz as Palermo
- Carlos Gómez as Eagle
- Tim Kelleher as Argento
- Dean Norris as Scott
- Nestor Serrano as Hellman
- Leonard Thomas as Allen
- Stephen Lee as Farley
- Robert David Hall as Sgt. Cale Wangro
- Michael Shamus Wiles as Taylor
- Paul Guilfoyle as Nathan "Nate" Roenick (uncredited)
The film is dedicated to J. T. Walsh, who died several months before the film's release.
This film's conspiracy plotline is loosely based on the pension fund scandal in the St. Louis Police Department in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The film received a generally positive critical response and a score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Emanuel Levy of Variety wrote: "Teaming for the first time Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, arguably the two best actors of their generation, in perfectly fitting roles is a shrewd move and the best element of this fact-inspired but overwrought thriller."
Roger Ebert, in his Chicago Sun-Times review, calls The Negotiator "a triumph of style over story, and of acting over characters...Much of the movie simply consists of closeups of the two of them talking, but it's not simply dialogue because the actors make it more--invest it with conviction and urgency..."
Mick LaSalle, in his less-than-enthusiastic review for the San Francisco Chronicle, had the most praise for Spacey's performance: "Kevin Spacey is the main reason to see "The Negotiator"...Spacey's special gift is his ability to make sanity look radiant...In "The Negotiator," as in "L.A. Confidential," he gives us a man uniquely able to accept, face and deal with the truth."
|Saturn Award||Best Action or Adventure Film||David Hoberman & Arnon Milchan||Nominated|
|American Black Film Festival||Black Film Award for Best Film||Won|
|Black Film Award for Best Director||F. Gary Gray||Won|
|Black Film Award for Best Actor||Samuel L. Jackson||Nominated|
|Blockbuster Entertainment Award||Favorite Actor - Action/Adventure||Nominated|
|NAACP Image Award||Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture||Nominated|