This taut crime thriller is a welcome antidote to brainless action extravaganzas in which the mayhem is the message, and rests on two shrewd, perfectly modulated performances. Chicago negotiator Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is a bit of a cowboy, but he's also a peerless handler of life-or-death hostage situations. Over the course of a few awful days, his life is shattered: His partner, who's uncovered evidence of corruption among their ranks, is killed. And Danny, who's on the board of the police pension fund, is accused of siphoning off money and committing murder to cover up the theft. Realizing that he's being expertly railroaded and hoping a little crisis might shake loose the perps behind the frame-up, Danny takes hostages, including fellow officers Niebaum (J.T. Walsh) and Frost (Ron Rifkin). He also demands an impartial negotiator from another precinct, the methodical Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey). Without demeaning director F. Gary Gray, whose SET IT OFF made the potentially tacky material crackle, the pairing of Spacey and Jackson is what makes this high-concept thriller work. Extraordinarily talented actors without being stars, they both embrace deeply flawed characters and wield words like weapons: Think of Jackson's diner speech in PULP FICTION, or Spacey's serenely dishonest patter in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, and try to imagine other actors making all those words work. Better, imagine Sylvester Stallone in Jackson's part -- it was offered to him -- and factor in that most of the scenes between the negotiators are played out over the phone. That's not to say the movie is all talk and no action: There are guns and gadgets, and some set-pieces to get the blood pumping. But the action isn't intelligence-insulting, and the thrills are mostly psychological -- what a welcome change of pace.