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Denzel Washington, John Travolta in Average ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’
CHICAGO – Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, is likely to meet sun-drained audience expectations for a straight-forward, adult-driven action film this season but the overly stylized and not-so-thrilling train ride is ultimately merely average at best and will disappoint fans looking for anything more.
The opportunity to make something “just not bad” out of the very well-liked “The Taking of Pelham 123” was definitely missed but there are elements of the film - mostly in the performances of Washington and Travolta and some of the choices made by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) - that undeniably do work and adults looking for non-sequel action are likely to be satisfied by what this train delivers.
Denzel Washington in Columbia Pictures’ action thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, also starring John Travolta.
Photo credit: Sony/Rico Torres
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is nearly presented in real-time and opens with the hijacking of a New York City subway train by a group of domestic terrorists led by the deadly Ryder (John Travolta). Ryder and his team clearly know how the rail system works, un-coupling the Pelham train at just the right point where snipers can’t get an easy shot and they can control communication.
Ryder phones in his demand of $10 million in an hour through dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a former executive who has been demoted while he’s being investigated for allegedly taking a bribe. Of course, Ryder and Garber develop a bond that allows for a lot of monologues, confessions, and revealed motives. Can the family man under a cloud of suspicion himself talk the deadly hostage-taker out of drastic action before it’s too late? James Gandolfini and John Tuturro co-star.
John Travolta in Columbia Pictures’ action thriller THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, also starring Denzel Washington.
Photo credit: Sony/Stephen Vaughan
Updated for the late ’00s, Helgeland and Scott have altered a story that was originally merely concerned with increasing crime in major cities and made it more about our economic crisis. In the original, Garber was just an average guy, but this time he’s someone who may or may not have succumbed to the financial pressure of putting children through college and done something illegal. Even Ryder’s motivation has been tied to the recession.
The update is an interesting one in that Helgeland and Scott clearly recognize that subway train hostages don’t have the inherent power they did in the ’70s with the increase in urban crime and thought they needed to add another layer to the story.
The problem is that suspense is often more effective with less explanation. What’s scarier? A hijacker with no explainable motivation or one who likes to give monologues about why he’s taking innocent lives? And what’s more relatable? A dispatcher in the wrong place at the wrong time or someone knocked down a peg looking for redemption? They clearly thought that “The Taking of Pelham 123” was too simple a story for 2009 audiences but sometimes a simple story well-told is more effective.
Of course, Tony Scott doesn’t know the meaning of the word simple. Scott delivers such a stylized product that he’s simply the wrong fit for this material. His over-the-top style is great for action, but “The Taking of Pelham 123” is not an action movie. To be effective, it needs to be about tension and suspense, both of which are shockingly lacking in “The Taking of Pelham 123”. Each twist and turn is telegraphed from miles away.
Scott may be the wrong fit but Washington does everything he can to bring the train in on-time and most people who walk out of “The Taking of Pelham 123” satisfied will be so because of what Denzel brings to the piece. He’s genuine and believable in a film stuffed with too many bells, buzzers, and whistles. Travolta isn’t bad but he has some ridiculous “tough guy” dialogue that simply doesn’t work. Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini, and John Turturro are entertaining in small roles.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” may not be the white-knuckle thrill ride that it could have been in a different director’s hands but Washington and Travolta deliver interesting performances in a film that zips by without much boredom. Scott’s film never falls into the dull, intelligence-insulting category that often passes as summer entertainment, but it’s ultimately a more forgettable movie ride than it could have been in another director’s hands.