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There’s no such thing as a good story, only good movies. Take two movies with slammin’ premises, for example, Disturbing Behavior and The Negotiator, and it’s not a sure bet that they’ll both be executed to full effect.
Disturbing Behavior is the first of what will doubtless be a string of knockoffs trying to cash in on the vein Kevin Williamson tapped into as frantically as Williamson himself is. The film has all the elements introduced in Williamson’s monster hits Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, sexy minors in a picturesque small town; hot, dark photography; a tone that straddles David Lynch’s alluring enigmaticism and MTV’s loose demands of engagement; and a kicky, wise-ass script that’s onto itself and its references. Like most really ghastly pulp moviemaking, it exerts a horrible fascination and offers moments of blinding smarts.
The behavior proclaimed in the title is what the casual observer of modern youth calls normal teenage activity. When Steve (James Marsden) arrives in bucolic Cradle Bay, the farthest his family can get from Chicago and memories of his brother’s suicide, he is immediately initiated into a hierarchy of regimented cabals. The local high-schoolers have divided themselves into camps announced by their clothing and pastimes, each utterly distinct from one another and intramurally conformist: skaters, hopheads, punkers, goths, geeks, and grinds.
The cliques are pointed out and explicated to the newcomer by a clever, self-made underachiever named Gavin (Nick Stahl), although it’s parodically clear who’s who. Gavin and his scarily albino friend U.V. (Chad E. Donella) have taken it upon themselves to show Steve around, but their real intention is to claim Steve before the Blue Ribbons can. Gavin suspects that this eerily clean-cut, very unkind group of superachievers shares more than an interest in family values and school spirit. The Blue Ribbons comprise heretofore normal, pot-smoking, fun-loving kids who were sent away on an “orientation weekend” by the school’s creepy counselor (Bruce Greenwood) and returned with a weird red gleam in their eyes, fully Stepforded. Gavin wants to find out who’s programming the students, but disbelieving Steve just wants to get with tarty, rebellious Rachel (Katie Holmes, of TV’s Dawson’s Creek, a Kevin Williamson production).
Disturbing Behavior has an audacious premise in these promise-keeping times, that normal teenage existence is one of rebellion, experimentation, self-expression, and general temporary slacking off. Scott Rosenberg’s script confirms that, just as we suspected in high school, any student who’d wear a crew cut and Archie cardigan or really, really want to be a princess on the homecoming court had to have been brainwashed by jittery parents. The movie treats this idea as a conspiratorial horror with neurobehavioral origins (thanks, Clockwork Orange) and adds a vicious little twist: When aroused, the kids turn murderous. Sexual continence in teenagers is something Rosenberg posits as absurd and old-fashioned; “I need my fluids” a short-circuiting jock tells his randy date, right before twisting her head off.
But Rosenberg is not a barbarian; the hallmarks of a healthy teen include intellectual curiosity and freethinking alongside sexual dabbling, a fondness for drugs, and whimsical self-mutilation. The biggest tragedy in turning smart kids’ heads into jars for elitist, slogan-spouting social mayonnaise isn’t just the mean right-wingers they become but the probing individuality they lose. He even throws in a stock character, a crazy old janitor obsessed with rats, whose Boo Radley act is only camouflage, he’s unmasked by the Kurt Vonnegut paperback in his pocket.
Rosenberg is getting at some fascinating ideas about anti-intellectualism, conformity, and violence, veiled in the watcher-friendly guise of a teen thriller, but the film that director Nutter has built around it is silly and rotten. Still, Disturbing Behavior puts hot-blooded kids to better use than Wild Things did. Maybe it will become the Detour of 20 years from now, a crummy little genre flick infused with mysterious power.
There’s something so sure-footed and cavalier about F. Gary Gray’s direction that The Negotiator is as humorous as it is suspenseful. Gray directed last year’s Set It Off, so he knows how to keep an overlong film taut and tricky, and to defy audience expectations without resorting to outright twists.
Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is a Chicago policeman and hostage negotiator known within his precinct and to the media for his maverick style. He has a reputation for taking crazy gambles, but Roman’s real talent is minute calculation, he knows precisely how much pressure a hostage taker can bear, and his risk assessment in any situation is exact to the ounce. In spite of the kudos from his colleagues and the public, they still underestimate just how skillful and shrewd he is. The worst situation the Chicago police and its public relations department could possibly find themselves in would be having to negotiate with this master of situation-control.
This is exactly what happens when, shortly after another stirring success, Roman is framed for the murder of his partner and the embezzlement of police pension funds. Crazed with frustration and the Kafkaesque web of evidence-planting and departmental covering-up that’s trapped him, Roman stalks into his supervisor’s office and blithely takes hostage Internal Affairs chief Niebaum (J.T. Walsh), Niebaum’s defiant secretary, a highly placed colleague, and a runty little informer with a handy record for computer fraud (Paul Giacometti). The panicked department tries to enlist one of its junior talkers to communicate with Roman, but among Roman’s demands is the participation of Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey), a lesser known negotiator from another precinct. Thus begins the blurring of identities and motives between two experts on opposing sides, and a wild, funny, gripping ride it is.
The script (by James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox) is loose and witty; in its worldview, negotiating is not limited to what policemen do with “HTs.” Sabian is first seen sitting patiently outside a closed door in his own house, bargaining with his wife to come out in her pound-padding ski wear. There’s constant compromising and bickering among the tactical hotheads who want to blast into the federal building and start busting caps, the FBI men who claim the building as their territory, and the precinct guys who think they can talk their good friend Danny down from his tree.
Gray takes great trouble to assure us of Roman’s innocence, both specifically and generally; he’s seen being a patient and loving family man, and as about the only person who could not have killed Nate, the killer is white. All this heavy rallying to the hero’s side sets up a clever imbalance for the rest of the film, the real loose cannon, possibly even the real negotiator of the title, is Sabian. Neither Roman, who chose him for his lack of connection to Roman’s own department, nor the audience knows what Sabian is capable of. The script never betrays the intelligence level it has established for these two calculating stalkers; both know that their usual tactics are useless on each other, and both actors (the film is beautifully cast, down to the extras and hangers-on) have natural qualities that keep their characters on edge, Spacey’s sheen of puttied insincerity and Jackson’s volcanic undertow. There are enough helicopters, shattering windows, and promises of rah-rah vengeance to keep the action fan interested, but The Negotiator’s real thrills are in the psychological pas de deux performed by the only two characters who know the steps.