I bet these guys didn’t expect their day to go like this? That seems to be a reoccurring question in Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123”, a stylish but sometimes preposterous remake of the 1974 film. At its core this is a pretty formulaic, run-of-the-mill action thriller that takes no chances but also never wastes a moment. It moves at a quick and fluid pace which makes overlooking it’s shortcomings a little easier but not impossible.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” has all the bells and whistles of a Tony Scott production. The quick camera jerks, clever angles, and showy pyrotechnics work well to create an intense environment. In fact often times his camera adds more tension than the screenplay can muster. Scott has a recognizable style and can sometimes be called self-indulgent. He flirts with that label here but as a whole his high-tech machinations work just fine. It often times overcomes the story which is pretty basic material.
The movie starts with four heavily armed men walking into a New York subway station and taking control the Pelham 123 train. The film won’t do anything to enhance your view of post-911 security. There’s no elaborate well executed plan at work. The hijackers simply walk in and take the passenger-filled train. The leader is a man we come to know as “Ryder” played by John Travolta. Sporting a crew cut and fake neck tattoo, Travolta is clearly having fun with the role even though he goes a little over the top sometimes. “Ryder” soon contacts the Subway Control Center and connects with dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a middle-aged husband and father of two who ends up completely out of his element. Washington has played some rough and tough roles but he also has a wonderful knack for playing these “everyday man” characters. Here he’s subtle yet expressive and I loved watching how he handles the role. John Turturro is good as a head hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini is fine as the mayor even though his character is pretty poorly written.
While the story is fast paced and it does have its moments of tension, sometimes it’s just plain silly. For example we get a key scene involving an accidental sniper rifle discharge due to a rat bite and there’s a head-scratching sequence involving the cops transporting ransom money through the city. It’s beautifully filmed but utterly ridiculous. The story is also fairly conventionally and predictable. But the movie is also let down by a really flat and lifeless ending. It seems hurried and it packs absolutely no punch whatsoever.
In spite of the movie’s flaws, Tony Scott manages to pack some entertainment into this linear, straightforward action thriller. Washington and Travolta’s CB radio chemistry is compelling even if they aren’t saying much and Scott’s cinematic style gives the story energy and drives the tension in the scenes that do work. But the sub par material is too much to overcome. I especially hate to see such a strong Denzel performance go to waste but in reality there just isn’t enough here to make this anything more than an average movie.