The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) / Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence and pervasive language
Running time: 106 min.

Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, Victor Gojcaj, Michael Rispoli, Ramon Rodriguez
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland

A mysterious man named Ryder (Travolta, Wild Hogs) leads three other heavily-armed men in a plot to take over a subway train in New York City.  Their means of contact to the outside world to hear their demands is represented by MTA dispatcher Martin Garber (Washington, The Great Debaters), a man who doesn't know if he's ready, or even worthy, for the responsibility to try to deliver the 19 hostages on the subway car to safety.  Ryder wants $10 million in an hour, which requires the immediate participation of the reluctant mayor.  But it's Garber in the hot seat to try to engage Ryder before he carries through on his threat to kill the hostages, getting into his head while Ryder gets into Garber's.

The second theatrical adaptation of the John Godey (aka Morton Freedgood) novel proves that higher budgets and slicker direction don't always equate to better films.  The 1974 version is a minor classic for 1970s film aficionados, representing one of the first notable films to take advantage of the subway system claustrophobia and vulnerability.  Given the talent on board, it's hard to imagine how this could be a misfire.  You have one of the greatest actors working today, Denzel Washington, matched up for the fourth time with one of the directors of his more successful action/thrillers, Tony Scott (Deja Vu, Man on Fire) .  Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Blood Work, A Knight's Tale) delivers the script, and the supporting roles are bolstered by some of the better character actors in the business. With a storyline that has delivered consistent entertainment for over 35 years in its original form, how could it go wrong?

The first thing that comes to mind here is casting Travolta as the bad guy.  Travolta has played heavies before to varying success, but he's too soft in his appearance, despite the neck tat, to see him as the hardened, cynical mastermind that is as brainy as he is amoral.  Travolta is a dynamic actor, but when you look into his eyes, you can see the softness in them, and a thinker -- but a thoughtful thinker, and not the brainy Wall Street mastermind the part calls for.  Alan Rickman played a similar part of an educated terrorist in the similarly-premised Die Hard, in one of his most memorable and effective roles.  Travolta is more of a placeholder villain who is cast in the role to lend weight due to his star power to balance out Washington.

The major narrative flaw, at least from my perspective, comes from Helgeland's overestimation of how much of a media event several armed men holding a subway car full of hostages would be.  Newsworthy?  Certainly, and probably would be worthy of controlling the local, and perhaps national, news for a period. But it isn't the sort of thing that would send the stock market crashing, as it does in this film.  Helgeland pushes forth a 9/11-type catastrophe scenario that has the world reeling enough to sell their assets and put all their money into gold (A side observation: given the post-9/11 paranoia, it's a bit of a quandary as to why the MTA doesn't shut down all of the other subway trains until the situation diffuses, especially given that the news reports specifically refer to the hijackers as "terrorists"). 

However, as sensational an event as it might be for the media to get a hold of, it's just a bunch of thugs holding innocent people hostage, not very different from any other that happens on a monthly basis in some bank somewhere in New York City.  You'd think Ryder had a dirty bomb, was threatening to blow up a nuclear reactor, or had just assassinated the President, with the kind of widespread financial panic that has Wall Street brokers go completely ape-shit. 

Denzel seems to always be on point, no matter the role, so it isn't to anyone's surprise that he's the best thing here.  Although the film betrays the subtlety of his everyman characterization by transforming him from average Joe to semi-action hero within the course of just an hour, it's to Washington's credit that such a leap in logic can almost work.  But only almost, as it is still a bit ridiculous when he decides to take the law into his own hands, running around the streets of New York with a loaded pistol,  putting his own life and limb on the line to, ostensibly, only recover a portion of the ransom money.

Tony Scott does infuse the film with a good visual energy, though he does encroach in some directorial masturbation in his use of annoying strobe effects all too often.  He at least understands that its the interplay of the foils that generates the interest in the film, and not the shootouts or speeding subway cars alone.  it does fall a great deal short of the cat-and-mouse interactions in the Washington/Scott work, Crimson Tide, a film which had a much more menacing threat to deal with and produced a sense of genuine hatred between the two leads.  Instead, we have both parties just playing for time, Garber trying to give the authorities more breathing room while Ryder is just biding time until he has enough money to make his getaway.  And as effective an action director as Scott can be, it's also disappointing that, once the film breaks out of its claustrophobic interactions between subway car and MTA dispatch, the weight of the film's hard-to-swallow machinations finally causes the story to collapse. 

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has a fine Denzel Washington performance, some excellent locale work around New York City, and enough oomph in its storyline to deliver some modest escapist goods to keep most viewers' attentions from beginning to end.  What it doesn't have is the kind of plausibility in its basic premise to stand up to scrutiny or any really exciting, edge-of-your-seat moments that would make the entire thing memorable once it's all over.  It looks like the 1974 version will continue to be the choice to entertain at least one more generation.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2009 Vince Leo