9 June 2009 | C-Younkin
Travolta and Washington make it work
"Taking of Pelham 123" was the movie that had it all. A great director in Tony Scott, screenwriter in Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, LA Confidential), and leading men in Denzel Washington and John Travolta each doing what they do best. To its credit, Washington and Travolta keep it afloat. This is the kind of movie both can do in their sleep and watching them go one on one with each other is the film's main bright spot. Were also in for a pretty exciting ride as Tony Scott swings his camera around New York city streets and underground subway tunnels. Though this remake of the 1974 film starring Walter Mathau and Robert Shaw proves to be a little less than the sum of its parts.
Washington plays Walter Garber, the chief detective for the MTA currently involved in some controversy over a bribe he may or may not have taken. While that's being worked out, he's been reassigned to desk duty as dispatcher in the subway command center. Just today will be a day unlike any other as armed men hijack a New York City subway 6 train and hold all of its passengers hostage. The leader of the hi-jackers wishes to be called Ryder (John Travolta), and tells Walter that he wants 10 million dollars within an hour or he will start executing hostages. The cops (led by John Turturro) are brought in but Walter remains as the lead negotiator at Ryder's request.
Short on actual plot, I was expecting more of a character driven movie and early on it appears to go in that direction. There is a great scene where Ryder puts Walter on trial for the bribe and it leads you to think that these two are going to butt heads in dialogue-driven scenes all day long, exposing each other for who they really are. Just the battle of wits ends there, which is unfortunate cause the movie really crackles whenever they talk to each other. Travolta, sporting a menacing goatee and tattoo, is at his over-the-top, f-bomb-dropping, lunatic best and Washington is his level-headed, average-guy adversary.
The rest is all action. Car crashes and shoot-outs take place, the car crashes coming within a sloppy scene where the police travel by motorcade to deliver the money and the shoot-out starting from a rat crawling up a guy's leg of all things. Both feature no important characters and situations that are manipulated. The finale comes before you know it, a chase through the streets of NY that's more exciting because it makes more sense. And Tony Scott, despite using clichés like counting down the clock and going into slow-motion, keeps the movie gritty and fast-paced. As for the rest of the cast, James Gandolfini, playing a New York Mayor, is good comic relief, getting jokes about Giuliani, subways, and the Yankees but Turturro and Luis Guzman, playing a disgruntled MTA employee working with Ryder, don't get much to do.
"Pelham" works pretty well as a thriller because the Tony Scott-Denzel Washington teaming (this is their fourth go-around) always seems to do so and adding Travolta, always fun as a villain, is another nice touch. Just it doesn't always leave you engaged in what's happening, whether because the plot or the action lacks humanity. Still it's held together by good acting and solid direction and for that alone it's worth a ride.