Tony Scott films tend to be violent, profane, and intellectually apropos. The limey director’s latest, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, hits all of those points on target, though unfortunately, just so. The actioner doesn’t thrill quite as well as his Deja Vu, nor does it smack of a weekend-long peyote trip like his brilliant (yeah, I said brilliant) Domino. Still, for a New York action film, Pelham delivers the goods for most of its run time. To see an NYC action film that really stinks up a portrayal of Manahttan gunplay, check out Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks.
The only relation this remake has to Joseph Sargent’s 1974 thriller of the same name is a title, so let’s not bark up that tree of comparitive cinema. Mr. Scott is a big boy, we can judge his film without the prism of history. The story follows Walter Garber, an MTA muckity muck sentenced to working a dispatch mic after a scandal involving Japanese kickbacks. Played by Denzel Washington, Mr. Garber happens to be on the recieving end of a phone call from a terrorist who goes by the name of Ryder, played by John Travolta. Having hijacked a single car of a 6 train and cut off transit along that track, Ryder demands $10 million and the ability to stay on the line with Garber. So there you have it, the makings of a tight little thriller. Except, not really.
The biggest challenge for this film is to keep a bloodthristy audience interested during what is essentaially an extended phone call between bad guy and good guy. Mr. Scott, as you might expect, thinks the best way to keep these moribund scenes afloat is to whip and wind the camera around Travolta and Washington while they chat via CB radio. This gets old quite fast. Alone in the train tracks, there isn’t too much room for shoot ’em up action, so Tony Scott dips into his bag and pulls out his biggest trick: intellectual stimulation.
I could go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about how incredibly relevant this movie is. Ultimately, this film is about the stock market, but it is also about terrorism and being American. The hilarious intersection of the two occurs when one character points out that Ryder doesn’t look like a terrorist. I was the only one in the theater to laugh at this. It is not lost on Mr. Scott that we have all but forgotten the Timothy McVeighs of the world and settled on the Bin Ladens, whose physical appearances makes it that much easier to malign them. This kind of high-minded U.S. cultural dissection is the stuff that Mr. Scott has been pumping out his entire career. Pick up a copy of Days of Thunder if you don’t believe me.
Overall, 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is good enough. Denzel fills out the boring city employee nicely, though without sacrificing his brooding good looks. Mr. Travolta, on the other hand, is still trying to reprise his brilliace in John Woo’s Face/Off. Falling short by a mile, he comes off as a Hollywood star pretending to be a hardened criminal by cursing profusely and having neck tattoos. The performances are just one of the departments in which this movie fails to please on the surface, but if you take the time to pick the film apart, there is a treasure trove of delectable discussion to be had.