Film

'The Taking of Pelham 123'

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On The Aisle

By Tony Macklin


“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” begins in disarray. The dialogue starts with a spate of obscenities, blank, blank, blankety-blank. Blah.

If the dialogue makes obscenity vapid, the style is spastic. The opening credit sequence jumps, zooms and goes on a wild ride of camera fidgets. Wham, bam, thank you cam.

It looks as though the film is going to take us on a tacky subway ride through the slums of language and style. But as undependable as director Tony Scott is, his two leading actors are not going to lose their way. Denzel Washington and John Travolta are rock-solid actors, and given a chance they will prevail.

Washington plays a New York City subway dispatcher. Travolta plays a hijacker who, with three henchmen, takes over the No. 6 train with 18 hostages and demands $10 million from the mayor (James Gandolfini).

Washington and Travolta have considerable chemistry together. Although most of it is over the phone, it’s palpable. A major problem with Washington’s chemistry with gifted Russell Crowe in “American Gangster” (directed by Tony’s brother Ridley Scott) was they didn’t come together until late in that movie. But in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” Washington and Travolta enhance each other. 

Garber (Washington) is a flawed man, who has been demoted while under investigation about whether he took a bribe. Garber is cool, but like an average guy takes the subway to work everyday and brings home cartons of milk.

Ryder (Travolta) is a character who tries to enjoy himself immensely in the moment, but who also goes into sudden rages against authority. He adds an unpredictable edge to the dangerous happenings. 

One theme in Brian Helgeland’s very uneven screenplay of John Godey’s novel is the different levels and classes of graft and crime. 

They go from the mayor’s high-level shenanigans to Ryder’s sudden violence, to the working man’s weakness. But as in all of Scott’s movies, theme takes a backseat on the subway.

There are several scenes lacking credibility. They include Garber’s lollygagging conversation to his wife on the phone at a moment of severe crisis, the climax of the subway ride. Was something cut? And the crosstown money-ride that has taxi cabs flying through the air and multiple smash-ups and choreographed collisions. Neat but stupid.

If Scott has to choose between character and carnage, he chooses carnage every time.

And Helgeland (unlike the book) writes an ending that is unworthy of his actors. He turns everyman Garber into superhero-dispatcher, armed and racing through the streets of the city. Where’s his cape?

Scott is a director who simply can’t sustain his movies through to the end. What does Scott have on Washington? It must be something big, because they have collaborated on four movies. 

The first “Crimson Tide” was excellent, although Scott deemphasized the racism theme. “Man on Fire” fell apart into brainless violence, ruining a movie whose first half was exceptional. “Deja vu” was mediocre, a waste of Washington’s talent.

When Scott has two gifted actors such as Washington and Gene Hackman playing adversaries as in “Crimson Tide” he is OK, but when he allows style to overwhelm character, which is his penchant, he’s a butcher.

Helgeland, who wrote the screenplays for such bombs as “Payback” and “The Postman,” does not help with the hackneyed ending of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”

In 1974, Joseph Sargent directed the original titled, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” It was character-driven and ended with a nifty bit.

Scott never seems to trust character, so he wrecks his own movies. But Washington and Travolta refuse to capitulate as the wreckage flies around them. With their admirable talent, the two worthy actors prevent the careening train from going completely off track.

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