Denzel Washington rejoins director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Deja Vu) in The Taking of Pelham 123, the movie adaptation of a novel I vaguely remember reading as a kid. Scott likes to blow stuff up, and neither Washington nor co-star John Travolta is a stranger to the summer action flick. Sounds like a formulaic recipe for success.
Washington plays Walter Garber, a hard-working “everyman” employed by New York City’s public transportation system. His job is to oversee the subway line from the control center, which contains maps and electronic grids of the underground system. His day seems like any other, until he crosses paths with John Travolta’s character, a loose cannon who calls himself Ryder. Ryder gets the bright idea to hijack a subway car and hold its passengers hostage until the city agrees to pay him 10 million dollars. He is communicating with Garber at the control center and gives him an hour to come up with the money, or he will begin killing hostages for every minute the money is late. And dude is not playing. The unique thing about the movie was that it didn’t fall into the Hollywood trap of following the “happy ending” rules. I’m not revealing whether or not the movie ends happily, just that conventional methods are not followed here. Innocent people die, a marked departure from traditional summertime popcorn movie formula. Scott effectively captures the atmosphere of the city, with lots of panoramic shots overlooking Manhattan. The writers kept the action and dialogue between the two leads, and didn’t focus the storyline on any passengers too heavily, which effectively dumbed the movie down, in my opinion. I enjoy a good action thriller as much as the next person and I think the best ones manage to entertain while still throwing in a twist or two. That didn’t happen here. There was no intriguing reason for Ryder’s decision to hijack the train. Nope, just good old-fashioned greed. That’s fine, but it would have been interesting if there were more gray area or plot twists regarding corruption or secondary unexpected implication of another character.
Working with what we have, the movie was fairly decent and entertaining. No movie with Denzel Washington is ever actually bad, and this one was better than his last pairing with Tony Scott, Déjà vu. He effectively conveys Garber’s reluctant heroism, and he and Travolta have a couple of good scenes together, which is no small feat since they don’t actually come face-to-face until well into the movie. For me personally, Travolta is beginning to creep into Nicolas Cage spaz territory. He is almost becoming an Al Pacino parody of himself. The gesticulation, the spazzing out, it’s becoming comical. He says MF a lot too, which he seems to enjoy. Alas, I digress. There’s nothing to dislike about The Taking of Pelham 123, and thus I give it my tepid endorsement. The script could have been a little smarter, but it was entertaining and straightforward, never trying to be more than it was: a summertime action thriller for the masses.
This review first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2009/06/the-taking-of-pelham-123/ and was reprinted with permission.