In "The Taking of Pelham 123," Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a dispatcher in the New York City subway's control center. When Garber notices that the Pelham 123 train has stopped for seemingly no reason, he radios the driver and discovers that the train and its passengers have been taken hostage. A team of criminals led by a man who identifies himself as Ryder (John Travolta) is demanding that the mayor (James Gandolfini) give them $10 million within one hour in exchange for the hostages. If there's a delay, Ryder threatens to kill one hostage for each minute that the money's late.
This film is a remake of the 1974 original starring Walter Matthau alongside Jerry Stiller and Hector Elizondo. The filmmakers took some liberties with the story, which enhanced it. For instance, Garber is no longer Lt. Garber, a transit cop. "Pelham" is a by-the-numbers heist flick; the good guy will win, but the fun is seeing how he'll do it. Because Garber is no longer a professional crime fighter, an otherwise predictable (although enjoyable) premise becomes more suspenseful.
Also, the updated story portrays technology as both a blessing and a curse to good effect.
Washington and Travolta deliver engaging performances. Playing a relatively low-key, almost geeky civil servant is an interesting change of pace for Washington. Travolta is terrifying as a disturbingly intelligent crook who oscillates between being sadistic and amiable. The conversations between Garber and Ryder touch on fate, relationships and even contain moments of humor. Such lines, in the mouths of less capable actors, would have been tedious.
A standout in the supporting cast is John Turturro as police negotiator Officer Camonetti, who inserts himself into the hostage situation. Although playing a hard-boiled cop, Turturro handles the role delicately and prevents Camonetti from becoming a caricature.
One slight disappointment is that Garber's wife Therese (Aunjanue Ellis) does not factor into the film that much. Her appearance in the film's trailer is half of her appearance in the film. One would think that there would be plenty of home-related conflict considering that Garber's situation could result in professional, if not fatal, consequences. But then again, the story plays out in a little more than an hour, so the short shrift makes some logical sense: Perhaps there wasn't enough time for panic to mount.
This performance-driven (I had to make a pun somewhere) crime thriller is a must-see for the summer.