That 1970s action classic The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 earns an efficient if not exactly riveting treatment from Tony Scott, the lesser of the two hyper-editing Scott brothers. It stars Scott's go-to actor, Denzel Washington. But the film is built around and wholly dependent on John Travolta chewing a microphone and chowing down on what little scenery there is underground as the tattooed, foul-mouthed mastermind of a New York subway car hijacking.
"This is the man who's going to rock this city!" he crows into the mike through a fierce Fu Manchu mustache.
Travolta is "Ryder," the guy who takes control of Pelham 1 2 3. Washington is Garber, the dispatcher on the other end of that microphone, the "man with a past" in the control center forced to deal with the killers who take over a car and its 19 passengers. Killers? They must be madmen, he thinks and we all think. How can you hold hostages for ransom underground with any hope of escaping?
Ryder is the prototypical modern movie "madman" — absurdly chatty, philosophical, more a talk-radio guy than a gangster with a gun. He couches everything in market terms, and even though they don't share many scenes, Garber is as rapt as everybody else at Ryder's patter.
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Scott juices their exchanges with a cacophony of train sound effects and a whiplash blur of edits. Ryder dismisses the police hostage negotiator (John Turturro, cool, collected) and insults the lame-duck mayor (James Gandolfini) as he counts down the minutes toward the deadline for $10 million to be delivered to him.
Brian Helgeland's new script based on the John Godey Pelham novel sets up moral dilemmas that don't reach any sort of intellectually sensible conclusion. It's a glib piece of work, suggesting Scott's True Romance, in which people are dying but there's still time for jokes, wisecracks and little moments ripped from "An aphorism a day" calendar.
It's a movie that gives you a little to ponder and one that's more easily quoted than felt. We barely get to know the train passengers — the kid (Alex Kaluzhsky) whose Wi-Fi connection allows his girlfriend to televise events from his laptop inside the train, the mom with the young son, the guy with the shy bladder. Empathy is in short supply, even when people die. At least Garber's wife (Aunjanue Ellis) is able to turn it on in her big phone-conversation scene.
That's one of the problems with this era of the cell-phone thriller. They're great for filling in plot, for ratcheting up tension, for placing actors who might be available for filming at different times in the same scene. But they can make for an emotionally sterile movie experience.
Travolta sells this stuff, and how. He always seems to relish his villainous turns, and this is up there with his Broken Arrow-Swordfish-Face/Off turns — over the top and loving it.
The thing that keeps bringing The Great Denzel back is that he and Scott make hits together — Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu.
But Pelham, for its crowd-pleasing, heart-racing virtues — and it does get us going several times — plays out like a pairing that Washington, at least, should have taken a pass on.