Running time: 107 mins.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
Three suspicious men enter a convenience store wearing different colored motorcycle helmets. They proceed to hold the clerks at gunpoint and empty the till before making a swift exit in a blue pickup truck. Moments later, the same truck is found in a hospital parking lot with a flat tire. The building’s lights are shut off, and it rapidly becomes apparent that the people inside are now being held as hostages. A swarm of flashing red police lights gathers outside, and a tense standoff begins.
At the centre of Takashi Miike’s "The Negotiator" are Ishida (Hiroshi Mikami) and Tono (Mayu Tsuruta), a police inspector and captain, respectively, who were once thought to be having an affair together. However, as a discussion between two of their colleagues about the matter reveals, Ishida’s involvement in an affair is made unlikely by he and his wife’s (Kumi Nakamura) drawn-out struggle to conceive a child together. They eventually had a son who, at the age of four, sadly passed away due to poor health. Despite the rumors, Ishida and Tono are brought together once more to serve as negotiators with the armed captors. Among the patients being held inside the hospital is Ishida’s wife who was originally admitted for cancer treatment, making the situation all the more dire.
As a tense police procedural, "The Negotiator" delivers the goods in a reliable, straightforward fashion. The film’s attention remains tightly focused on the police as they converse with the criminals and form strategies for safely getting the hostages out. Both Tono and Ishida maintain extremely polite manners in their negotiations, ensuring that the crooks’ demands are met and ignoring the grumbles of protest from their colleagues in favor of maintaining good terms. As the situation develops, the police learn more about their opponents, eventually concluding that they are foreigners, with their leader (referred to as “Black” for the color of his helmet) possibly being Chinese.
Yet the film cleverly begins to explore surprising possibilities in its second half that suggest that the case is far more complex than what was originally assumed. Thus, "The Negotiator" turns out to be more of a mystery than a thriller, disclosing the layers of its plot with patience and intrigue. Viewers are given small pieces of the puzzle a few steps ahead of the police, allowing them to try and figure out the whole scheme in motion. Along the way, Ishida and Tono’s relationship becomes more fully developed through fleeting flashbacks that eventually explain the hidden bond they share – and how it may in fact be linked to the hostage case.
Contrary to what one might expect from the same filmmaker who made "The Bird People in China," "Dead or Alive" and "Audition" (all before this film), "The Negotiator"’s style is, for the most part, more slick and functional than anything else. Miike maintains a noticeably muted color palette throughout and smoothly portrays the negotiators’ attempts to figure out what is happening and free hostages with a no-nonsense efficiency. Both Mikami and Tsuruta are solid in the main roles, but there is little room for them to display a whole lot of range, so professional and formal are their characters. Similarly, regular Miike collaborator Renji Ishibashi turns up in a supporting role, but is mostly relegated to the background. However, towards the end, when the perpetrators’ motivations are fully explored, Miike is able to slow down and offer a few, pleasantly nuanced character moments. The final scene, which consists of a long take from outside a restaurant on a quiet winter night, is so calmly presented that it almost doesn’t feel like it’s part of the stoic crime drama that came before it.
A successful exercise in restraint from Miike, "The Negotiator" makes for a reliably entertaining excursion that comes with a healthy amount of twists and suspense to satisfy the curious viewer.
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