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‘A’ is for ACTION

2011.02.27

It’s exhilarating, isn’t it, when all the parts of a movie line up perfectly?  When the artistry and technique are so perfect that while the reels are spinning, you aren’t even thinking of the artistry or technique, taken away as you are by what you are seeing and hearing?

It’s difficult for that to happen in any movie, but especially difficult for the action genre, prone as it is to cliché and excess.  For some reason, I have been reviewing action films as of late, the great (Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) and the wretched (Live Free or Die Hard, which plays like a limp season finale of 24–and that’s pretty limp).

The original Die Hard brought a new era of action film to the blockbuster summer line up.  Gone were the brash and godlike Rambos and in were the wearied and realistic John McClaines.  Actioners in the wake of Die Hard, like Speed and The Fugitive, featured more psychological complexity.  (Of course, I mean relative psychological complexity–I’ve yet to find an action film that Bergman would have made.)

It was with delight that I rediscovered a gem from 1998, a suspenseful flick called The Negotiator, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey, and directed by F. Gary Gray.

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To set the plot up for you, briefly:

(Note: discussion of this film will involve revealing certain plot points, but I make sure not to reveal anything that would spoil the last reel of the film for anyone.)

The Negotiator stars Samuel L. Jackson as Daniel Roman, a hostage negotiator for the Chicago Police Department.  He excels in his job, has earned immense respect from his colleagues, and is newly married to a strong and devoted wife.  His most recent success was the saving of a little girl being held at gunpoint by her father.

The euphoria is short-lived, however, when a colleague, Nathan Roenick, reveals to him that large sums of money are being embezzled from the CPD’s disability fund.  Contacting Internal Affairs is out of the question, as Roenick believes an inspector in that department (J. T. Walsh, in one of his last screen appearances) is involved.  This information was given to Roenick by an informant he refuses to name.

And in a turn that would have made Hitchcock’s ears perk up, the Walsh character is assigned the embezzlement case.  Soon, Roenick turns up dead and incriminating documents are found in Roman’s house, causing him to be suspended from the force and shunned by his former mates.  Facing exile and lifelong shame, Roman storms in the Internal Affairs office and takes the inspector and three others hostage.

None of this is delivered by the standard exposition inherent in most action films.  These setup scenes take their time, establishing the characters–even the supposed villans–as three dimensional and their situation as logical and consequential.

How to deal with the force’s best hostage negotiator who himself has taken hostages?  Roman knows he cannot trust his own former colleagues anymore, so he requests an equally experienced negotiator from another precinct.  Enter Kevin Spacey.

Does this sound like the perfect premise for a Jason Statham film, where guns have unlimited magazines and lots of stuff gets blowed up real good?  It’s not that kind of film.  That is obvious from the get-go, just looking at the way the film is shot.  It’s routine now to shoot action films hand-held (the “shaky-cam” aesthetic popularized by NYPD Blue on TV) and edit together the chaotic shots frames at a time, the idea being that a lot of random activity will produce some measure of excitement.  For me, however, such a technique is more likely to cause disorientation and nausea.

To be honest, sometimes I wonder what the raw footage, the dailies, looked like for some of those action films.  Like The Bourne Ultimatum.  What direction did Paul Greengrass give Oliver Wood during a setup for that film?  “Well, just wave the camera about like an epileptic.  We’ll do half a dozen takes and Christopher Rouse can make something of it in the editing room.”  Gray and his cinematographer, Russel Carpenter, didn’t shoot the film in such a haphazard way.  The camera angles are chosen deliberately, to give the viewer a complete sense of space.  We know the layout of the office, exactly where everyone is in relation to everybody else.  This is much better for creating suspense than nauseating shaky cam shots lasting fractions of seconds.

Compare Rear Window, indisputably among the greatest of all suspense films.  (I’m assuming you all have seen it, so I don’t feel the need here to summarize the plot or characters.)  What would it have done to the film if Hitchcock had given us a second-long shot of Miss Lonelyhearts, then the Songwriter, then Miss Torso?  We would have some perfunctory knowledge of these supporting characters, but no sense of the spatial relationships in the apartment building James Stewart spends so much time spying upon.  There would be no suspense in the scene where Thorwald enters the building, only to find Lisa in his apartment.  There is suspense because we know where the apartment is in relation to the entrance, how many rooms are in it, and where Lisa can hide.  We know how long it takes to get from the building door to the apartment door.

You can see the apartment building in the lens!

Russel Carpenter cut his teeth on The Wonder Years and such fare as Critters 2: The Main Course, Pet Sematary II, and The Lawnmower Man.  But by the time he signed on to photograph The Negotiator, he had mastered the ability to use his camera to develop the spatial relationships necessary for a real suspense film.  He had just won an Academy Award for photographing James Cameron’s Titanic, a film in which it was very important to know where everything and everyone was in multiple locations, and to exploit the viewer’s knowledge of this to create dread and anticipation.  For Carpenter, compositions create suspense, not frenetic movements and random zooms (Tony Scott, you deserve a Golden Raspberry Award for Most Gratuitous and Annoying Use of Zooms in the History of Cinema).  He knows his shit.

Consider the following scene.  Roman is waiting for the negotiator he requested when the department negotiator, who seems to be a rookie, tries to have a go at him.  On paper, this scene is quite funny, but Gray also uses it to build tension.  Note that most of the shots are a one-shot with a shallow depth of field.

Of course, these images can’t do their work unless they are stitched together properly.  Editor Christian Wagner was no stranger to the action genre, having cut True Romance and Face/Off before tackling this project.  If Carptenter’s images are the notes, Wagner arranges them beautifully into a tight, exciting symphony.  His music is just as good as it sounds.  He never overedits, which would leave the filmgoer in a state of bewilderment and exasperation.  Many action films nowadays seem to have been edited using a Cusinart, probably to hide script weaknesses and the director’s own ineptness at blocking and composition.

But all of these artisans had a great blueprint: the solid script by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox.  Neither writer had done much of note before, but they pounded out the perfect kind of script for an action film.  Believable characters in a plot that follows the rules of logic (and physics) are the most satisfying–it is not enough that the stakes be high, for me anyway, they must also be real.  Fox and DeMonaco do not rely on elaborate set pieces and clever-but-ridiculous action filler.  Every moment arises from the motivations and personalities of the characters.  Some of the most exciting scenes are driven not by explosions and gunfights, but by intelligent dialogue (see above video).  More than anything, I was reminded of the cat-and-mouse game in Andrew Davis’s brilliant The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones (who won an Oscar for his role).

And the scenarists do something nowadays unheard of in suspense films: the climax is not explosions and guns and foley artists beating bats into slabs of meat.  The resolution is a character’s face as he realizes he is perfectly, totally screwed.

The Negotiator is more than worth your time, even if typical action films aren’t your thing.  (It is not typical.)  It is available from Netflix, from Amazon on DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming rental or streaming purchase, and iTunes.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bross-Hog permalink
    2011.02.27 11:32

    FACT!

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