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Sub-Par Sub Car Drama in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2009 12 Jun
Sub-Par Sub Car Drama in <i>The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3</i>

DVD Release Date:   November 3, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  June 12, 2009
Rating:  R (for violence and pervasive language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  106 min.
Director:  Tony Scott
Actors:  John Travolta, Denzel Washington, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Victor Gojcaj, Alex Kaluzhsky, John Benjamin Hickey

Actor Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott have a good thing going. Beginning with Crimson Tide in 1995 and continuing with Man on Fire in 2004 and Déjà Vu in 2006, the director/actor combo has generated hit action films, with worldwide grosses of $157 million for Tide, and $130 million for Fire and $180 million for Déjà Vu.

Their fruitful partnership continues with The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of a 1974 film that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw that has two solid lead performances, but which suffers from certain excesses common to modern-day action films.

The current incarnation brings things decidedly into the twenty-first century, as our villain, who goes by the name of Ryder (John Travolta), manipulates commodities prices and tracks the stock market through an underground Internet connection. (When transit worker Walter Garber [Washington] calculates Ryder's ransom demand and asks about a one-cent discrepancy, Ryder tells him to keep the change: "That's your broker's fee," he says.) Add a steamy boyfriend/girlfriend relationship heightened through the wonders of streaming video on a laptop and we know we're not in 1974 any longer.

Garber is a recently demoted New York City transit operator who stands accuses of taking a bribe. Ryder is the crazed leader of a team that hijacks a subway car and threatens to kill all of the passengers unless his demand of a $10 million ransom is met within an hour. That demand sets off a hurried scheme that draws in the city's mayor (James Gandolfini), his right-hand man (John Benjamin Hickey) and a seasoned hostage negotiator (John Turturro) who fails spectacularly in his first attempt to supplant Garber as Ryder's intermediary.

The villains' motives are explained in due time, but the mechanics of the scheme—millions of dollars delivered to a stranded underground subway car, followed by the bad guys' escape—stretches credulity. The addition of an always-on laptop that streams video between a passenger and his significant other breaks whatever spell the filmmakers manage to create.

As for the performers, Washington is solid if undistinguished as Garber, while Travolta can't quite modulate Ryder's calm, controlled negotiations with his crazy, over-the-top rants. His attempts to find common ground with Garber by pitting them against a common enemy come off as manic and forced.

The biggest difference between the two versions may be the startling amount of foul language and violence in this new offering. Though decently paced, the film's nearly nonstop dialogue isn't very interesting or revealing. To generate excitement, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who also wrote Man on Fire and L.A. Confidential, has saturated it with obscenities—some casual, some quite direct and intentional.

The language is as assaultive as some of the visuals are meaningless. Scott has always endured the rap that he's a hyper-stylist when it comes to visuals (his more famous filmmaker brother, Ridley, has suffered the same accusations), and this latest film only will bolster those making the accusations. Empty technique characterizes several moments in the film: freeze frames revealing how many minutes are left until Ryder unleashes his promised killing spree; a helicopter takes flight across the screen, while the background remains static. Worse is an extended car race through the city as officials try to get ransom money to Ryder before he carries out multiple executions. Scott, who spent the 1980s directing Tom Cruise blockbusters like Top Gun and Days of Thunder (released in 1990), likes loud machines and things that go boom. Given a psychological cat-and-mouse scenario dominated by talk, Scott finds a way to work in multiple multi-vehicle crashes. Whoopee.

The film has its moments, although the outcome is less than original. But what else would we expect in a summer movie season built on remakes and sequels? Pelham is derivative and, in terms of moral content, depressing. Is it exciting? It has its moments. That's the best that can be said for the film.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; constant foul language, including multiple uses of the "f" word, start with the opening song and continue through Ryder's final line of dialogue; a female model is referred to by the part of her body she models with; metaphors about dog anatomy.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A girl takes her top off and dances for her boyfriend, who watches her via a live video stream on his laptop; as a man tries to urinate, a young boy stands beside him and urinates; a man says another man would be his "bi-ch" in prison; blunt threat of anal sex.
  • Violence/Crime:  Ryder takes hostages and demands a $10 million ransom; people are shot several times at point-blank range; Garber is accused of taking a bribe; vehicle collisions; police shoot suspects multiple times.
  • Religion:  Ryder wears a cross earring and talks about God with Garber, who initially suspects Ryder is a Catholic because he talked about original sin; Ryder speaks of life and death in fatalistic terms, and says everyone ends up "in the same place"; Ryder says we all owe God a death, and Garber says we owe God life; Garber claims that all the talk of God makes him want to pray, and then that God has spoken to him.