THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3
** (out of 5)
June 12, 2009
Denzel Washington as WALTER GARBER
John Travolta as RYDER
Luis Guzman as PHIL RAMOS
Victor Gojcaj as BASHKIM
John Turturro as CAMONETTI
James Gandolfini as MAYOR
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Directed by: Tony Scott
BY KEVIN CARR
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I suppose the main question that you need to ask yourself in determining whether you’ll like “The Taking of Pelham 123” is whether you believe that John Travolta can be a badass.
Sure, he’s played villains before, most memorably in “Face/Off,” but did anyone really take his campy gangster act very seriously? And yes, he revived his career in the mid-1990s with the morally ambiguous character Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” but his role seemed more of a charming comedic take on the modern gangster film.
In “Pelham 123,” Travolta plays the bad guy, the unapologetic, murdering Ryder who hijacks a subway full of people and holds them for ransom in New York. Opposite Travolta is Denzel Washington as Walter Garber, a dispatcher who gets stuck talking with Ryder. As the city of New York tries to save the passengers on the car, Walter struggles with his own checkered past while trying to keep Ryder under control.
Academy Award nominations aside, pitting John Travolta against Denzel Washington isn’t really a fair fight. The role of Walter Garber is something that Washington settles into easily, and considering his long-standing working relationship with director Tony Scott, he plays it as easily as he has in films like “Crimson Tide,” “Deja Vu” and “Man on Fire.” Scott and Washington have developed a chemistry over their multiple projects, and the role fits well.
Travolta, on the other hand, tries to stretch. However, I’m in the camp that I don’t think he can be much of a badass on screen. I don’t care how many tattoos you slap on his arms and neck, or how tough you make him look with a buzz cut and dark glasses, Travolta just comes across as too comical to play the heavy.
While Washington plays things straight and Tony Scott assembles the film like a modern day action thriller, it’s Travolta’s cheeky delivery that makes “The Taking of Pelham 123” roll much more like a comedy than anything else. Every time he goes on an insane tirade, I laughed. Every time Travolta tries to be raw on screen, he just looks silly. Every time he drops an f-bomb, the audience erupts in laughter.
I guess Hollywood’s going to have to go back to their badass talent pool and find folks like Jason Statham and Ray Liotta for their next film.
Fans of the standard hostage drama genre will enjoy “The Taking of Pelham 123” to a certain degree. It hits all the marks you’d want for a movie like this. You have the explosive moment of action when the subway is hijacked. You have the tense negotiation in which the hero and villain talk but not face-to-face. You have the tragic loss of human life. You have the traditional inside job element of the hijackers. You have the failed attempt by the police to overtake the terrorists.
Unfortunately, with all of these elements, “The Taking of Pelham 123” plays somewhat pedantic. We’ve seen all this before, including the backstory of Garber who is facing corruption charges, which worked better when Mel Gibson and Ron Howard delivered it in “Ransom” more than a decade ago.
Like he has with his last half-dozen films, Scott glosses over his otherwise dull-witted film with his special brand of flash and fast cuts, making the film play more like a music video than major motion picture. The ludicrousness of this presentation is at its height in the film’s intro, painting the subway dispatcher’s job as exciting as a general leading the Air Force into a dog fight battle. Even the simple act of people getting on the subway is shot with a frenetic, over-produced look that gave me headache before the opening titles were finished.
Flash can work in a film, but it can also be used to cover things up, and “The Taking of Pelham 123” had a lot that needed to be covered up.