2009 marks the fourth time critically acclaimed actor Denzel Washington has teamed-up with director Tony Scott for a film. The previous three movies were outstanding crowd pleasers, from the intense character driven drama of “Crimson Tide”, to the action-packed thrill-ride of “Man on Fire”, followed by the surprisingly enjoyable time-jumping actioner “Déjà Vu”. With such extremely entertaining movies being produced from this actor/director combination, I had no reason to doubt that I would enjoy their fourth collaboration, the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123”.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” begins for subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) much like any other normal day; however, as Walter soon discovers this day will be far from normal. When a violent group of criminals, led by a seriously deranged man named Ryder (John Travolta), takes control of one of New York City’s subway cars, Garber gets stuck in the middle of a deadly game where lives can be lost with one wrong move. What started as just another day has now become a race against time to meet a madman’s ransom before innocent lives may be lost.
Well, I must admit, this movie really surprised me in a couple of ways, and not necessarily for the best. For starters, it was a much smaller, more intimate character drama than I had anticipated from the previews. I knew that it would be a thriller, so the intensity would obviously be ratcheted way up, but I didn’t foresee how narrow the majority of the movie’s focus would be. Now, that’s not a complaint implying that most of the movie was too small; on the contrary, I enjoyed that director Tony Scott moved away from the widespread action and mayhem that had permeated so many of his more recent movies (also not a complaint). Sometimes it’s just nice to see a director who is known for a certain type of movie, take a step back and deliver something outside of their perceived comfort zone. Generally, when this happens the results can be quite refreshing and intriguing, to say the least.
However, my second surprise came from the fact that despite being thoroughly entertained by the story for roughly 95% of the movie’s duration (as expected), the film’s confounding climax derailed the movie slightly, just before reaching its final destination. The tightly paced screenplay from writer Brian Helgeland (“Man on Fire”) was rife with tension, suspense, and drama; all of which provided the perfect recipe for an intriguing character drama, as I stated above. Yet, within the film’s conclusion and for that matter even during a few scenes prior, it becomes slightly overblown and ultimately perplexing. What makes this a problem for me is the fact that when this occurs this once taut thrill ride begins to resemble just another action film (complete with an overdone crash sequence and an unrealistic chase scene) that doesn’t feel like it fits in with the rest of the movie.
What caused this problem to occur in this movie? I believe this is one of those instances where the director couldn’t leave well enough alone, and just had to include a big, and altogether unnecessary, action scene to complete his vision. I’m putting the blame mostly on director Tony Scott for this lack of judgment, although to be fair I’m sure these trouble spots were included in Helgeland’s screenplay (perhaps at the behest of Scott, who knows). Whatever the cause, Tony Scott knows how to make great movies, and should have known better than to hinder a potentially great thriller with needless action movie set pieces.
Despite the complaint I just finished leveling at director Tony Scott, I do feel that he was a very solid choice for helming this movie. His hyper-kinetic visual style is perfectly suited to the kind of fast-paced thriller that Brian Helgeland’s script demanded. Thankfully, Tony chose not to include all the washed out colors, pops of bright white across the screen, and various other camera filters and tricks that have been so heavily used in some of his recent work (i.e. “Man on Fire”). Even though I enjoyed the movies where Tony used what he calls his “shooting on acid” style, it was beginning to become somewhat distracting for me as the viewer, especially in his film “Domino”.
Tony’s more straight-forward approach to filming (which is reminiscent of his work on “Enemy of the State”), meaning without all the weird filters and such, is far less jarring. That’s not to say that this film’s camera work is completely static and boring. After all, we are talking about Tony Scott, so as one would expect the movie is chock full of quick cuts, almost constant camera movement, and even some moments of slow-motion, freeze frames, and fast-forwards. One thing is for sure, if you’re going to watch a Tony Scott film, you’re almost always guaranteed to be in for a visually interesting experience.
One area where the film definitely comes through is in the casting of the two lead characters. In the role of the story’s protagonist, as anyone who has seen the preview should have deduced, is audience favorite Denzel Washington, taking over the role previously portrayed by screen legend Walter Matthau in the 1974 original. Denzel plays Walter Garber, a man beaten down by a thankless job, who is struggling to survive in a world that waits for no one. It’s a part that could have been played with far less believability by some actors of Denzel’s stature, but as always Denzel delivers yet another solid performance. Unlike some of his past roles, Walter is a far less confident man than what some have come to expect Denzel to portray. While Walter may not exude authority and command the respect that other Denzel characters have before; there is a quiet strength inherent in the character that connects with the audience and fills Garber with a steely resolve to see this ordeal through to its conclusion.
The other lead actor in this film is the ever-reliable John Travolta (“Face/Off”), in yet another scene stealing villainous role. As the lead hijacker, Ryder, Travolta proves once again why he is generally a perfect choice for a cinematic villain. One moment he will be extremely charismatic and almost likeable, but in a split-second he will simply snap, becoming completely unhinged and unpredictable. So many actors struggle to break a good guy image once it’s been solidified in the public’s mindset; however, Travolta is one of the rare examples in which he has been able to successfully transition back and forth between good and evil roles without issue. Some critics argue that John’s villains tend to feel over-exaggerated due to some over-acting on his part. I tend to disagree with this sentiment, at least in this instance (“Battlefield Earth” on the other hand…). I think some critics perhaps mistake this character’s almost bi-polar personality for over-acting, when in reality it is simply a drastic shift in his character’s emotional composition. In my humble opinion, I believe John Travolta delivered another top-notch villainous performance that audiences will love to hate.
In the supporting roles are some very talented, and always dependable actors such as, John Turturro (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”), James Gandolfini (TV’s “The Sopranos”), and Luis Guzman (“The Count of Monte Cristo”). John Turturro is given a much more serious, no-nonsense role this time around as opposed to the off-kilter, eccentric character he’s more recently been associated with in the two “Transformers” movies. With John’s character he could have easily remained very cold and one-dimensional; instead, he played him as a very empathetic man who loves his job and always wants to do what’s right, not just what’s convenient for those in power. With that conviction there is also a clear sense that Turturro’s character feels somewhat betrayed by the job and perhaps even by the city he protects. It’s a surprisingly more conflicted role than one would expect, and not surprisingly John handles it all with great ease.
I mentioned a moment ago that James Gandolfini and Luis Guzman were two of the other supporting cast members, but unlike John Turturro their roles were far less interesting. Truthfully, I can’t for the life of me understand why the casting director chose to waste two very good actors on essentially throwaway roles. As the mayor of New York City, James Gandolfini appears bored and unenthusiastic, but who can blame him when the role is so bland and generic. As for Luis Guzman, this terrific character actor is placed in a bit part as one of Travolta’s henchmen; however, he’s given so little to do within the story that you can’t help but wonder why he even signed on for this movie.
Perhaps it was the opportunity to get to work with Denzel Washington, John Travolta or director Tony Scott that drove those two actors to participate in thankless roles. Whatever the case may be, it is too bad more couldn’t have been done to make their characters more interesting or important to the overall story.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” has all the makings of an incredibly relentless thrill ride, but some ill-fated decisions in the latter moments of the movie slightly derailed my enjoyment of the experience. All things considered, “Pelham” is still an entertaining movie, it’s just got some problems that cause it to stumble to conclusion rather than roll along smoothly.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is rated R for violence and pervasive language.