The most credit in the movie has to be given to John Travolta, who brings so many wonderful layers to his performance.
While Tony Scott is not the visionary artist that his brother Sir Ridley Scott is, he nevertheless can make an extremely entertaining movie that is a lot of fun to watch. I bring up the comparison only as a minutely pejorative comment on Tony Scott and his track record for making movies that all seem to have been shot with identical style and edited simultaneously, lest people forget they are watching a Tony Scott movie. An auteur this does not make.
The Taking of Pelham 123, a remake of the 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, is exactly what we are looking for in a summer movie. It’s fast-paced, it has A-list stars and it delivers plenty of action. The movie takes place in New York City where Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a Metro Transit Authority dispatcher, is biding his time after a demotion lands him working several levels below his expertise. His day takes a massive left turn when one of the subway trains is hijacked by a group of men who are clearly trained and know what they are doing. Ryder (John Travolta) is the leader of the group and likes Garber so much that he refuses to talk to anyone else. He demands $10 million in cash within an hour or he will start killing passengers.
An NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro) comes on the scene but has no luck with Ryder. Garber is forced to stay on with Ryder while police desperately try to reach the Mayor (James Gandolfini). As minutes pass, it become clear that Ryder is not bluffing and is willing to honor all of his promises.
First, the most credit in the movie has to be given to Travolta, who brings so many wonderful layers to his performance. Travolta is a regular guy playing a regular guy trying to be a badass. Not for one minute do we feel anything that isn’t genuine and well thought out. Travolta is never as good as when he is a bad guy. For proof, see Pulp Fiction (of course), Broken Arrow, Face/Off or Swordfish. Each role is a different type of bad guy, but always someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Washington is, once again, playing a part far below his talents. I mean, did he really see this role as challenging, or did he owe Tony Scott a favor? Every time Washington is listening to another actor, you can almost see how much pain he is in because he knows he is like a professional quarterback forced to play with a JV football team. It’s that simple.
Scott does a good job keeping the pace moving and keeping the audience’s attention. That mainly comes from all the years of practice he’s had working in this exact style. The camera work, editing, pace and frenetic method are identical to his work in Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, Enemy of the State and The Fan. I could easily see these movies all being shot with the exact same crew and star, in the case of Washington (three movies), and being cut into one massive made-for-MTV movie. I’m not sure if Scott is afraid his audience will fall asleep or just won’t understand if there are fewer camera cuts and coverage shots. The scripts are all good; he needs to just trust his writers and create less work for himself and his Second A.D.
But don’t let that dissuade you from seeing The Taking of Pelham 123. In fact, it should be a reason to go, as you know you’ll most likely enjoy the movie. It’s definitely not formulaic and the story is smart and well crafted. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. | Matthew F. Newlin