"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3", Tony Scott's ("Déjà vu", "Crimson Tide") new film starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini, is a remake of a very popular early 70s film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in the same roles. I haven't seen the original, but I enjoyed the new version, a surprise considering I am not a huge fan of the director's MTV style of editing. In fact, Scott's editing style makes the cable network look like television from the 50s.
Walter Garber (Washington), a supervisor for the New York Subway system is under investigation for taking a bribe; he has effectively been demoted and now sits at a desk making sure the system is running smoothly. Ryder (Travolta) and his crew, including Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman) jump on the Pelham 123 and quickly take control of the train, moving the passenger vehicle into a tunnel with a good vantage point. They disconnect the bulk of the train, saving the front car and it's passengers as their hostages. Ryder calls the command center and starts talking to Walter. He wants $10 million dollars for the dozen or so hostages he has on the train. They have one hour. Walter calls the police and the Mayor's (Gandolfini) office. And everyone descends on the command center. A professional New York Police Hostage negotiator (John Turturro) tries to take over, but Ryder has built a relationship with Walter, wants him back and won't talk with anyone else.
Tony Scott has made his career with films that include impossibly quick editing, jarring camera moves and a frenetic pace. He almost seems to think two seconds is 1.5 seconds too long for any shot. He makes Michael Bay look like a silent film director. Why can't he let our eye, our mind spend any time on a shot trying to comprehend what is going on? If he were able to let us take in the action, our mind would help to fill in information and make everything more interesting, more dramatic, and more exciting. Because he is moving everything so quickly, it almost seems as though he doesn’t want to give us that power, to think about what is going on in the film. Is he that much of an egomaniac? I think it is a little evil when a filmmaker can't let the viewer interpret anything in a film. Tony Scott is evil.
In "Pelham", Scott keeps the pace fast, jumbles a mixture of techniques together and creates a film that is suspenseful and keeps you engaged. Okay, so maybe he isn't evil. Actually, his style seems to help this film, to a degree. For instance, when the gunmen are taking over the subway car, he spends a few moments lingering on one of the thugs and slows the film down, letting them take a few steps in slow motion. After he tires of this, he jumps the action forward and the characters are taking over the car, everything orchestrated and highly planned. This mixture of techniques helps to show us how difficult it is to get anything done in New York.
Washington is good. Let's face it, he always is, it’s the films that usually let him down. As Garber, he seems a little chubby, wearing a mustard yellow button down shirt and an old-fashioned tie. This is a man who has spent a lot of his career sitting down. And as we meet Garber, we realize he knows how to do his job. He moves the trains fluidly through various obstacles. He knows what to look for. He knows how to solve the problems that come up. He is a good man to have on the job when a hostage situation breaks out. But given the nature of his standing, his boss doesn't have any confidence in him. As soon as the police arrive, Walter is sent home.
As soon as Ryder finds this out, he makes it known that he will only deal with Walter. This scene is probably the most effective, establishing Ryder's power and Walter's commitment to his job.
Throughout the film, the two actors have to give their characters personality and build a relationship, even though they don't see each other and aren't in the same room. Washington reveals things about his character in a subtle fashion. He is a career executive and has a wife, a mortgage and two kids who are in college. Much of this is revealed as he and Ryder talk, as Ryder tries to get to know the man. Gradually, as they get to know more about each other, Ryder escalates the conversation and begins to exert control on his new friend, forcing him to reveal personal information he doesn't want to let other people know, especially his co-workers, the police and the mayor, all of whom are an audience. But he does relent because Ryder makes it impossible for him to say no.
As the day progresses, we see that Walter is ultra professional and has worked his way up through the ranks. This helps him figure out what he has to do to get as many hostages to safety as possible. And he clearly has a lot invested in the workplace, making it necessary for him to do everything he can to ensure the safety of the people on the train.
Travolta plays Ryder, the leader of this mission. Ryder and his men take over the train with the utmost precision. They move it to a place where they have the advantage, they keep only one car (easier to control) and do many other things which show they have an inside man. As the time ticks away, Ryder slowly becomes a little more anxious, but he never loses control. He has clearly planned every detail of this mission for months and months.
As he and Walter talk, Ryder reveals more and more about his life. Travolta has played the sociopath, the flashy, over the top killer before, in roles great, amusing and way over the top ("Face/Off"), and in roles that just don't work ("Domestic Disturbance", "The Punisher"). He even seems to play them with relish, delighting in their more theatrical attributes. In "Pelham", he dials it back quite a bit which is a good thing. There is no doubt that Ryder is a sociopath because he kills a few people, but he also seems collected and clearly has a course worked out in his head. He seems to be a religious man, talking about confessionals, various passages in the bible and the like. And he seems to take a liking to Walter, insisting that the beleaguered subway official stay involved with him throughout the day, remain his contact with the outside world.
It is a good performance from Travolta and compliments Washington very well.
James Gandolfini plays the mayor of New York. As soon as his aides find out about the situation, they rush to a subway station and meet the Mayor's train at the platform. He gripes about taking the train, but he knows it is the quickest way to get around town. His aides quickly advise him of the situation and they take the train to the command center. Gandolfini makes a believable mayor of New York and he has a few funny lines about Rudolph Giuliani and the people of New York.
John Turturro plays a hostage negotiator. It is the first of two films Turturro is featured in released three weeks apart. And both are about as different as one can get. In "Pelham", he is very serious, no nonsense and very matter of fact. He could easily be an actual negotiator. It's a nice performance and works well within the context of the film. In "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen", well… not so much.
Luis Guzman plays Ryder's second in command and he seems to have a lot of good, useful knowledge about the subway system. As we spend more time with him, it becomes clear he is a nervous guy and not used to this sort of thing.
I was convinced there would be a "big, surprising twist" at the end of "Pelham". When this didn't happen, I was happy because Scott and his writer, Brian Helgeland didn't resort to this kind of cheap storytelling trick. But on the other hand, I was a bit let down because Scott and Helgeland end the film on a more naturalistic note, a bit of a whimper rather than a bang.
Scott manages to keep the tension ratcheted up and doesn't let it up until the very end. In my book, that makes for a successful thriller.