Before I get into whether or not The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is any good (which is what we all came here for), I have to do what amounts to a public service announcement. It’s not directed at anyone specifically, although you can certainly feel free to believe that it is.
Consider it a lesson for life, but if you’ve got an actor that recently dressed in drag and in a fat suit simultaneously while singing songs about busting loose on the dance floor, you might want to avoid introducing his character in your movie by slow-mo-ing a closeup of his face to the hook of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Yes, it’s a bad ass song, but you’ve still got to make your character look a bit more bad ass before he gets to walk into the scene to Hova.
That being said, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is actually a fairly capable flick. Despite Tony Scott’s best laid plans to shake my eyeballs loose from my head with his MTV-style editing in the first start-and-stop ten minutes, the rest of the film goes on to set up a stark hostage scenario where the stakes keep getting higher and the human lives at stake are in real danger.
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is the unlucky dispatcher who gets the call from Ryder (John Travolta) and a band of armed hijackers who have taken over the Pelham 1 2 3 subway train, demanding $10 million be delivered in one hour, and promising to kill a passenger every minute past the deadline.
What works about Pelham is that, despite being high concept, there’s a solid focus on the characters that gives us shades of who they are without getting too preachy or attempting to get deeper than it needs to. This, I would credit to the writing of Brian Helgeland who has churned out more than his fair share of thrillers and suspense. The writing is closer to Man on Fire than L.A. Confidential, but hell, Man on Fire was a pretty great movie, too.
Helgeland balances those character moments with action beats that usually amount to the severe threat on a person’s life. The writing also tends to reveal more personally about the characters during those action beats – which works really well. Ryder’s inability to see people as innocent, his need to blame others for his own actions. Garber’s self-sacrificing nature even when he’s doing something unethical. Both meet in the middle in a strange way that adds another layer to what could have been a direct-to-DVD movie about a group of people trapped underground. (Did anyone else see Fire Down Below?)
There’s no doubt that Washington’s character Garber is the main focus. Even if he wasn’t, the level of acting talent Washington brings to the table would have elevated him to the forefront anyway. There’s no actor working in Hollywood today that plays the role of the reluctant hero better. Somehow, Washington is able to create an everyman character who you have no trouble believing can rise to the occasion if necessary. He’s basically John McClane if Die Hard were about some schlub off the streets instead of a cop.
But in certain ways, the film could have been renamed Deja Vu 2: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. I’m sure some audiences will check it out without knowing Tony Scott directed both, and they’ll instantly be able to recognize the style, probably accusing the director of ripping off his own work.
My main concern after seeing the opening scenes (other than trying to find my seizure medication) was that Travolta was going to drag the movie down. Luckily, his Ryder is fairly strong – usually when he calms down and focuses on what the character is doing. Travolta has a tendency to force how rough and rugged he’s supposed to be (mostly with shrieking outbursts), and it’s either Helgeland’s fault or the actor’s fault for not catching it, but Travolta sounds like a Dachshund pretending to be a Bulldog whenever he curses. And he curses a lot.
Still, he’s not totally miscast. But the film itself does a worse job of trying to be bad ass when it isn’t – mostly through the use of freeze frame images that flash how much time is left before the deadline ends and a google maps-style fly over of New York City showing where the money is en route to the drop location. However, these elements actually grew on me as the movie progresses, and I learned to lean heavily on how much time was left. Had that time been used flippantly, it would have been the most annoying element of the film, but since the time is basically humanly accurate (unlike most movies where a hero has time to talk his lady friend into marriage, say goodbye to his best pal, then disarm a bomb all within 15 seconds), it becomes a cool feature that justifies its early use.
Unfortunately, they are still gimmicks living within an otherwise pretty passable movie. I say passable because there’s nothing that goes beyond a decently fun crime movie into mind-blowing territory. Washington is great as the guy he’s come to exclusively play, Travolta is decent, and the supporting cast (specifically John Turturro and James Gandalfini) is strong – but the film plays out basically like you’d expect it to. Like it has to, I would think. So it doesn’t stick with you in any way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re in the mood for a popcorn flick, but it felt a little like actual deja vu as I sat in the theater watching Denzel Washington try to save the city again.
The movie’s saving grace is its unwillingness to pull punches. It could have easily set up a hostage situation and played the tension out from that one scenario to the very end, but if there’s one strong suit to Ryder (and how Travolta plays him), it’s that he seems unconcerned with death. He’s a very real terrorist, and if he threatens to do something, he’ll do it. The response is sometimes shocking, sometimes expected, but it’s great to see a hostage-taker that just bluffs all the time in hopes that the money will come through.