As if riding the New York subway wasn’t nerve racking enough, with its express trains that don’t stop until Rockaway Beach, rats the size of Chihuahuas and mystery smells, along comes The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 about a domestic terrorist holding a subway train full of people hostage. This remake of the 1974 Walter Matthau urban terror movie from visual stylist Tony Scott—simply calling him a director doesn’t do justice to his frenetic technique—is a tense subterranean thriller that makes Manhattan’s legendarily hectic above ground traffic seem safe and secure by comparison.
In this update a band of bad guys lead by John Travolta, in full blown psycho mode with a goatee and a bad attitude, launches an elaborate hijacking of the Pelham 1 2 3 train (so named because it leaves Pelham Station at 1:23 pm). Following the train’s capture Ryder (Travolta) makes contact with dispatcher Denzel Washington, a veteran MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) employee who knows the system inside and out. Ryder demands 10 million dollars in exchange for the lives of the 19 people aboard the train. If the money doesn’t arrive in one hour, he promises hostages will suffer.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is the talkiest action movie of the year. More words than bullets fly, but Scott keeps things moving at a clip with his trademarked feverish visual and sound design. In creating the look of Pelham Scott seems to have pushed his Final Cut Pro program to the max. Images blur, jump and freeze elegantly, backed by a soundtrack heavy on industrial sounds used as punctuation. It’s an interesting palate that could easily have overwhelmed the film—as it has in past Scott works like the wild Domino—but luckily Scott has cast two charismatic and interesting actors in the lead roles.
It’s been years since Travolta played such an all out foul-mouthed baddie. He relishes the role, bringing a fun unpredictability to the psychopathic Ryder. He’s nuts and dangerous, but Travolta doesn’t play him as a slobbering madman, but an unhinged sociopath who is playing an elaborate game with people’s lives—including his own. Lately Travolta has been dressing in drag (Hairspray) and playing up to the kids (Bolt) but Pelham proves he hasn’t forgotten how to access the dark side.
On the other end of the scale is Denzel Washington who hands in a natural, modulated performance, full of charm and wit. It’s not as showy a role as Travolta’s and it is ground he has tread before—think Inside Man—but he is so comfortable a presence on screen that he is the focus of every scene he’s in.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is more psychological drama than action movie and doesn’t necessarily improve on its source material but its intense visual style and the acting chops of Travolta and Washington (along with supporting cast members Luis Guzmán, John Turturro and James Gandolfini) make it a good summer diversion.