As a director Tony Scott is a bit hit (Domino, Spy Game) and miss (Deja Vu, Enemy of the State) for my tastes. His latest, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is not the first movie to be adapted from the novel by Morton Freedgood, but does showcase Scott’s trademark style.
I had planned to sit down and watch the original before hitting the screening for the new remake, but couldn’t quite find the time. So I can’t tell you how the film measures up to 1974 film with Walter Matthau. What I can tell you is the film delivers your basic “Die Hard in a subway” scenario, with smart crooks, mostly dumb cops, and a twist or two as well.
Our protagonist this time isn’t a hero. He isn’t John McClane in the wrong place at the wrong time. Denzel Washington stars as Walter Garber, a lifer in the subway bureaucracy who has been demoted pending the outcome of an investigation into his ethics. That puts the unlucky Walter at the dispatch desk when the call comes in that terrorists have taken control of a subway car with 19 hostages and are demanding $10,000,000 which must be delivered in one hour.
John Travolta is in his full scenery-eating mode as the lead terrorist. Those of you who have seen Broken Arrow or Swordfish know what I’m talking about. Though, to be fair, Pelham is better than either of those two films. What’s nice this time is that Travolta’s character has been purposely written in this manner, and there is a method and reasoning behind his madness. Travolta is allowed to be the cheesy over-the-top baddie because it is partially an act his character is putting on for Walter’s benefit.
Most of my complaints come not from the film itself, but from its genre, which is starting to grow stale. We know the terrorists will outfox the police, have a second more important secret agenda, and that stopping them will come down to our main character making tough choices. Throw in a chain of coincidences (a character happens to go in one direction, a certain bag ends up in just the right spot, etc.), and you’ll feel like you’ve seen much of this before.
Scott gives us a quick and well-paced film that thankfully never gets bogged down because it limits the amount of time you have to question all these little coincidences. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland goes one step further to suggest that fate provides a reason for these occurrences. It’s a cheap screenwriting “out,” but at least the unlikely nature of certain plot conveniences is acknowledged.
Although there are some nice supporting performances by the likes of John Turturro, James Gandolfini, and Luis Guzman, it’s really Washington’s film. Walter is a flawed character with real humanity. Although Travolta gets his share of screentime, Scott understands that this is Walter’s story and the film works best when it’s presented from his point of view. It’s only in the film’s final and weakest act where more is asked of Walter that the film begins to struggle with his character and what he is capable of. The script pushes the limits of the character a little too much in these scenes, but not enough to hurt the overall story.
Other than Star Trek, most of the bigger action films this summer have been disappointing, but here’s one that finally delivers what it promises (and a little more than I was expecting). It’s not going to set the world on fire or revamp the genre for years to come, but this new The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a fun, exciting, little action-thriller with a strong lead performance by Denzel Washington that may provide a couple hours respite from the summer heat.