Friday, June 12, 2009

Movie Review: "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009)

Sorry this one's a bit late. It's a fine film but I really just forgot about it after seeing it.

Director Tony Scott's remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" is a lot like a roller coaster. While the ride is in motion it's fast, fun, full of twists and always seems just about ready to spin out of control.

But upon exiting the ride and looking back, you realize it was a controlled, structured piece of entertainment that was never at any risk for jumping the tracks. "Pelham" is predictable, safe entertainment; but that doesn't stop it from being a well-oiled machine that delivers some good, fun summer thrills.

The film borrows loosely from the plot of the original film (so I've heard; the original has gone unseen by me thus far): a team of gunmen, led by an ex-con who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta) hijack a NYC subway car. When he calls in with his demands he gets transit dispatcher Garber (Denzel Washington) who becomes the unwitting hero of the ordeal, helped by a negotiator (John Tuturro) and the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini).

Like any good hostage flick, there are twists and turns throughout the flick. There's the assortment of hostages of all ethnicities, ages and genders and a new modern update involving a laptop webcam that broadcasts the chaos to the World Wide Web, a former armed forces recruit and a mother with her son. None of these subplots ever particularly stick, and Scott treats them more like filler instead of making us concerned about them or care for them. We've seen this movie more than once (and not just in the original): we know at least one hostage will be killed just to show thaat Ryder means business, another will probably sacrifice his life and everyone else will get out just in time for the score to be settled person-to-person between Garber and Ryder.

Scott sticks to the script, so the movie loses a bit of the suspense it could have otherwise had. But he's also one of the most skilled action filmmakers around when he dials down his stylish tics--as he does here. No one is able to make sitting around in a stalled subway care seem so...immediate or stage a car crash with such flair. This isn't Scott's best work--I would give that to "Crimson Tide" or "Man on Fire." But it's solid and capable and will give audiences exactly what they're asking for.

Obviously the big draw is not to see what happens to the hostages since, honestly, we're probably already aware that they'll mostly leave safe and sound (and they're not developed enough for us to care if they don't anyway). The draw is to see Washington and Travolta go head-to-head.

I find myself drawn to Denzel Washington movies even if they don't look too good because he's one of the few movie stars who still is able to bring some subtlety and character to even the most mundane roles. I've never seen him phone it in, even when the movie stinks, and he's actually done some of his best work with's no coincidence that the two movies I mentioned before, "Crimson Tide" and "Man on Fire," also star Washington. Here, Garber could have easily been a paycheck role, the standard reluctant action hero. But Washington gives Garber a sense of insecurity, of shame over some past indiscretions and a genuine hesitation at getting involved in the whole affair. In the third act the plot does require him to turn into a dashing action hero, but until then Washington is pretty great.

Travolta gives his standard "bad guy having way too much fun" shtick that he's been doing since "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off." To be sure, it's fun to watch him scream and rant, but the actor goes painfully over the top several times...maybe it's the 10th time he screams "motherf---er" that I began to grow weary. Or when he told the cops to "lick his bunghole" (I'm not making this up.) Travolta may command our attention but his delivery feels wrong; he's a live-wire supervillain in a film that calls for a gritty, calm and unshakeable bad guy.

In the supporting roles, I have to admit that when Jon Turturro showed up playing the sarcastic, arrogant cop, I cringed...Turturro's a fine actor who, like Washington, earned his stripes under Spike Lee. But lately he's just been the crazy, bug-eyed freak (not looking forward to seeing him in "Transformers 2.") But thankfully, Turturro turns down the quirks after his first few scenes and actually becomes a sympathetic, likable hero...although his little nod to Washington from a helicopter at the end is a bit too much. Luiz Guzman shows up as one of Travolta's cronies, proving the rule that every movie can be made better by adding more Luiz Guzman. Most surprisingly, however, is James Gandolfini's brief work as the New York Mayor. Again, this is a role that I'm sure was written to be one-note. But Gandolfini adds a world-weariness and a cynicism to the politican that feels genuine. It makes me wonder why he's not getting more post-Sopranos work.

And, like I said, Scott keeps things moving fast enough for the most part that the film is enjoyable; you won't realize most of its flaws until after the movie is over. Only in the third act, when the action leaves the subway and the movie turns into a standard chase picture, does it begin to lose its steam and give in to cliches. Also, (spoiler), I think that there was more going on with Ryder that may have been cut out. His actions at the end--begging Washington to shoot him--led me to believe that the whole scam was for a better purpose. I half expected Washington to shoot him, Ryder to make a killing in the stock market from the day's events and then have the money left to his wife and child. The movie seems to be heading that way, but never really proves it. (end spoiler).

In the end, "Pelham" is a simple pleasure. It's the type of movie you can spend two hour on during a hot summer night and you'll walk out feeling that you've been sufficiently entertained. But it's also going to be the first to be forgotten when the next big film comes along.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.