Friday 17 August 2018

Small talk: "The Negotiator"

It is as they say: man cannot live on sitcom cameos alone. For his first substantial dramatic role since TV's Mad Men concluded, Jon Hamm has picked The Negotiator, a retro, politically edged character study - penned by Bourne and Michael Collins scribe Tony Gilroy - about a gladhanding US diplomat forced to renounce the cocktails and canapes and engage with the messy realities of Beirut (the film's shooting title) as it was in 1982. The first half of Brad Anderson's film does about all it can to put Hamm's Mason Skiles in a deep, dark hole. After a prologue that sees Israeli forces do for Mason's wife during a security raid, our brooding hero retreats to the US and a dead-end labour-arbitration gig he handles by drinking himself into oblivion after hours. He's recalled to active duty for a reason initially known only to CIA handler Rosamund Pike; this proves to be the kind of unfinished business that inspire bestubbled wash-ups in movies to finally get their shit together.

Which is to say that some of the details glimpsed along Mason Skiles' road to redemption are familiar: it's one of those period political thrillers where people gabble exposition in cars speeding towards or away from airports, and which makes a conspicuous fetish out of characters lighting up cigarettes on the plane. It's the handling that makes The Negotiator a slightly unusual proposition in the modern movie marketplace. Gilroy and Anderson thrust their fortysomething characters into a complex, ever-shifting situation, and trust the audience will be patient enough to watch them try and talk their way out of it, often in subtitled Arabic. The director, whose recent movies have emerged from the pulpier end of the thriller spectrum (Transsiberian, The Call), treats it like one of his upscale TV assignments (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire): he sticks character actors (Larry Pine, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham) with varying lengths of sideburns, then sets them against each other, throwing in a twist of sorts every 25 minutes that alters the nature of these negotiations. Never is the film static; never does it come to feel essential, either.

Evidently, The Negotiator is the type of midrange project all but squeezed out of the studio system once the suits began diverting the bulk of their resources towards comic-book movies. It opens with multiple logos for indie backers who've granted Anderson a week or so of shooting on Moroccan locations that pass for the Middle East, and name performers that might give a film half a chance at the box office. Yet even at this level, the film feels more than a little hand-me-down. You wonder whether Gilroy had this script earmarked for his old mucker Clooney and an Oscar shot around the time of Argo, only to find himself looking on as - through a succession of frustrating development meetings - it became a film imagined chiefly as VOD filler, and most likely to be watched between naps on long-haul flights. Seasoned Hamm fans won't be unduly disappointed: he returns to the charismatic whisky-downing that made Don Draper a pin-up in certain circles, and is palpably more engaged here than he was amid the nonsense of 2016's Keeping Up with the Jones. The trouble is that the film around him doesn't have anything like the necessary heft behind it to persuade casual observers that this might be a bona fide moviestar, rather than just a very tall, notably squarejawed television actor. It's partly the filmmakers' failing, but more generally the failing of an industry growing ever more indifferent to these demographic-expanding projects: American cinema has a real problem when films such as these land on our screens - big or small - already seeming like relics or afterthoughts.

The Negotiator is now showing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on September 24.

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