Tony Scott knows how to open a movie. His new film, “The Taking of Pelham 123,” starts like an audio uppercut. By the end of the title credits the movie off to the races, and it doesn’t quit until the final credits come smashing down. “Pelham” is dripping with Scott’s hyper-kinetic signature style, which keeps the picture moving even though it is mostly about standing still. Pack your Dramamine and stand clear of the closing doors.
Toted as a film based on the original novel penned by Jeffery Godey, and not a remake of the 1974 film, this version pits Garber (Denzel Washington), a mild mannered subway trafficker who has recently been demoted because of a bribery accusation, against Ryder (John Travolta) a sociopath with a grudge. They face off over the titular train on either side of a microphone. Both Washington and Travolta create fun and interesting characterizations that start to unravel by the end of the picture.
Washington comes at his Garber with a good-guy “Every-Man” type who must rise to the challenge in order to redeem himself for some past malfeasance. No surprise that Denzel steps up to the plate, and delivers, playing an action hero against type. He’s reluctant and quiet, and while this goes against the genre convention Scott and Washington are also toying with the actor’s tough guy image. In “Crimson Tide,” “The Siege,” and countless other pictures Washington has played driven men who dive headlong into danger, but here Garber has to be dragged kicking and screaming.
Also playing against type is Travolta. Rarely the villain in “Pelham” Travolta tries to bad it up with the best of them, and when not talking in his “Welcome Back, Kotter” squeak succeeds in making the audience root for, and fear his Ryder.
Unfortunately toward the end both men’s motivations, crystal clear up until then, start to become muddled. Garber and Ryder begin acting out of plot necessity rather than anything organic to their character. In fact when we are let in on Ryder’s back story it seems a little thin to explain his behavior, and after the final reveal his true end game seems at odds with his previous actions and his final decision.
Other than the confusion toward the end the script, written by Brian Helgeland, is solid. With enough pot shots at the bureaucracy of Gotham, and James Gandolfini’s nameless Mayor, a thinly veiled Bloomberg analog who knows more about market manipulation than governance, one might think Helgeland were a native New Yorker (he’s from Rhode Island).
Much like the recent “Drag Me to Hell” “Pelham” uses the economy as the driving force behind its mayhem. With out letting much slip that isn’t obvious from the first five minutes Ryder has a strong Wall Street background, turning what most Americans think is are the modern day bad guys into one on the silver screen. With that in mind Ryder’s capriciousness might have been intentional, painting all those in the financial sector as men and women who blame everyone else for their own bad behavior.
Never getting the respect that his Ridley does, Tony Scott has long been one of the best directors around, often outshining his elder brother. This picture doesn’t waste a frame, and is one of the tightest examples of action directorial acumen around. Despite its failings “The Taking of Pelham 123” falls into a win category for Tony. By my count Tony is in the lead 11 to 5 (you can guess which are which).
El Luchador Rating: (4 out of 5)
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)