When most people think of Tony Scott, they tend to remember the man who directed hits like True Romance and Man on Fire. What most people forget is that he also directed garbage like Déjà Vu and he will next be helming the impending Warriors remake, which is blasphemous enough in itself. Unlike his brother, Ridley, whose filmography is more or less an impressive string of excellent movies (including classics like Blade Runner and Alien), Tony's resume consists of hit and miss pictures that spread over three decades. His latest, The Taking of Pelham 123 (pronounced one, two, three) is much like his film history: a mixed bag with enough momentum to keep it from dying, but little to sustain it throughout its course.
A remake of the 1974 picture of the same name, The Taking of Pelham 123 follows a group of armed men who hijack a New York City subway train and hold the passengers for a ransom of 10 million dollars. The city has an hour to gather the money and for every minute they go over, a passenger will be executed. The hijackers are led by Ryder (John Travolta) who makes his demands to dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who gets stuck in the thick of the situation and is forced to take extreme action to stop him.
Although technically a thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123 starts out as a film where action doesn't play a major role. Instead, it's more of a slow moving, dramatic movie and these were the parts I enjoyed the most. Travolta is absolutely gripping as the unstable Ryder and watching him interact via radio with Garber is intense because they both have their own agendas, both playing a tricky game of deceit, one trying to stall while the other plays mind games.
In a way, Ryder works as an angel on Garber's shoulder. Garber was sent to Japan to look at a new set of trains and pick the best model. The Japanese offered him a bribe of $35,000 to pick theirs and since that was going to be his choice anyway, he took it. He has been accused of the crime and has since been demoted in light of an investigation. At one point in the movie, Ryder and Garber talk of the Catholic church's ways of confession, with Ryder admitting his Catholicism. In a pivotal scene, he takes over the role of a priest and purges Garber of his sins. He practically forces a confession out of him. It was fascinating. Unfortunately, this fascination quickly desolves into a routine action picture.
Partway through, it felt like the filmmakers got bored and decided to throw in some useless, fast paced action scenes, including a sequence with not one, not two, but three completely unnecessary crashes. To get the 10 million dollars to its destination, the NYPD has to drive the money to its proper location, so they create a police escort and speed through the streets of New York City with the money in the back. Not only does one cop car inexplicably get smashed, a biker cop runs into a non-moving car and the main police cruiser with the cash in it doesn't just get hit, it gets flipped literally a dozen times, falling off of a bridge and landing upside down on the streets below. A million questions were running through my mind. What was the purpose of this? Wouldn't the NYPD block off most of the city streets in this type of emergency? Am I really supposed to believe that not one, but two inattentive drivers smashed into the police escort? Why not use a helicopter? It worked only as a manufactured way to stall the police procession and create fake tension.
If Travolta was the shining light in the film, Washington was the loose end. While Travolta was engrossing in his performance as a man on the edge, harking back to his earlier days of playing the bad guy in films like Broken Arrow and Face/Off, Washington is less captivating. He's far from bad; it's just that we've come to expect so much from him and he simply fails to deliver. This could be due to the nature of the screeplay, however, because the two characters are vastly different and one is allowed more freedom than the other. Travolta is playing an unstable, vengeful man, so he clicks into a range of emotions, sometimes screaming with rage and sometimes calm and collected. Washington basically sits behind a desk and talks for the majority of the movie. He simply isn't given much to do which didn't allow him to flex his acting muscles.
Additionally, some of the dialogue in the film was indubitably silly, contrary to the tone. There were a handful of unintentional laugh out loud exchanges in the film, including this gem in regards to Ryder's perception of Garber's chatter over the radio: "He's got a sexy voice. He'd be my bitch in prison." Please. These moments were shocking to hear considering the talent involved, but nevertheless, hear them I did.
Despite all these problems, the main premise and the excellent performance by Travolta put some real intensity in the proceedings and kept the movie from failing. There's no real need to rush out to the theater this instant, but if you're in the mood for a well crafted, albeit significantly flawed thriller, you could do a whole lot worse than The Taking of Pelham 123.
The Taking of Pelham 123 receives 3/5