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June 14, 2009

Movie Review – The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

by HELEN GEIB

The Taking of Pelham 123 is the fourth film from the director-actor team of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington; their prior collaborations were Crimson Tide (1995), Man on Fire (2004), and Déjà vu (2006). John Travolta co-stars and John Turturro, Luis Guzman, and James Gandolfini lead the supporting cast. The film is based on a novel by John Godey that was previously adapted by Hollywood in 1974 (as the slightly differently named The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). The script is by Brian Helgeland; LA Confidential, Mystic River, and Man on Fire top the list of his roughly 10 major screenplay credits. The story is set in the subway tunnels and on the streets of New York City, and the on-screen evidence proves the filmmakers had the budget they needed for convincing sets and on-location filming.

All of this adds up to a solid mid-level Hollywood film. Not a must-see, but worth seeing. An entertaining, star-powered thriller of the type many people go to the multiplex during the summer movie season hoping to find.

Washington plays Walter Garber, a dispatcher for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and career civil servant. Travolta is Ryder, the leader of a four-man criminal group who hijacks a subway train and holds the driver and the passengers in one of the cars hostage. Garber is made a participant in events when he calls the train to ask why it has stopped and is answered by Ryder. He is kept involved at the whim of the hostage-taker, who refuses to negotiate with anyone else. Turturro plays the police negotiator forced to act as counselor to the amateur who has unwillingly usurped his role, Guzman plays one of the criminals and Gandolfini takes on the part of the Giulianiesque mayor.

The plot unfolds in close to real-time, a narrative device that in itself creates considerable suspense. The film also skillfully uses tension-and-release in the long middle section on the hostage drama. The focus throughout is on Garber and the script effectively develops his character– personality and back story- through the colloquy with Ryder and interaction with the negotiator. Washington gives a typically compelling and nuanced performance that often elevates the material. Ryder, a sociopath high on adrenaline, is familiar territory for Travolta; while the part doesn’t challenge him, he shows he’s still good at playing the edge-of-sanity criminal mastermind.

However, the movie stumbles when the lens moves away from the Garber-Ryder drama. The occasional attempts to lighten the mood with ancillary comic relief feel forced and the jokes are seldom funny. I tired of the mayoral shtick well before the end. Characterization of the supporting players is limited and more seriously, often awkward. There are a few weakly scripted and cursory dialogue-based scenes featuring the several (in a group of 20) hostages designated for speaking roles. Ignoring them altogether would have been preferable to this pro forma acknowledgment.

Scott’s visual direction is subdued compared to his previous work in titles like Man on Fire and Domino. The relative restraint is appropriate to a film composed largely of a protracted two-man conversation filmed in shot-reverse shot; Scott’s sometimes dizzying camerawork would have been only a distraction in this context. An exciting race against time by a police car with motorcycle escort through congested city streets to deliver the ransom provides more scope for visual flourishes. There are also some swooping overhead and panorama shots that seem to exist primarily to indulge a love of filming from a helicopter.

2 1/2 stars


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Review of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

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