The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 movie poster
MPAA rating: R
Genre: Mystery/Suspense
Denzel Washington and John Travolta star in this remake of the 1974 thriller about a subway dispatcher attempting to resolve an underground hostage situation.
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzmán, John Turturro
Director: Tony Scott
Running time: 1:46
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Editorial Review

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," a remake of the gritty and darkly comic 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, is about the controlled chaos of a city that barely works.

The new film, directed by Tony Scott ("Enemy of the State," "Top Gun"), captures some of the grand venality of New York that made the original so much fun. As the lead hijacker of a subway train that left the Pelham station at 1:23 p.m., John Travolta is in high manic mode, seething and unpredictable, violent and charismatic. The best moments of the film are his conversations with Denzel Washington, who plays the Matthau role, as a disgraced subway official who is accidentally thrust into a leading role.

If the film stayed there and focused on the psychology of an ordinary guy with a blot on his record and a crazy man who sees his own darkness in everyone, it might have been a good film. But this is a Tony Scott film, which means it is animated by an absurd need for excess, and manic, dizzying camera work. And it has the usual Tony Scott tics, the misogyny and male solipsism. Women are bit players, annoying chicks who demand professions of love even as the world is going up in smoke.

In interviews, Scott has said he was intrigued by the film's challenges: Why would someone hijack a subway train? Isn't it rather foolish to commit a crime in a tunnel, where you can be easily captured? But alas, rather than solve those problems, Scott has played whack-a-mole with verisimilitude, addressing one implausibility only to find a dozen others.

Walter Garber, Washington's character, is both less and more than what he was in 1974, which makes his trajectory over the course of the film more dramatic and more ridiculous.

Like most of Scott's recent films, this one ends in self-indulgent silliness. You end up asking yourself, how do the few fun bits of the film -- James Gandolfini plays the mayor with a mix of Michael Bloomberg's money and brains, and Rudy Giuliani's ego and libido -- manage to survive in the midst of so much lousy filmmaking? The answer is a bit like the city itself: If a few decent actors play their roles and defend their turf, it doesn't matter how preposterous the whole proposition is.

-- Philip Kennicott (June 12, 2009)

Contains violence and pervasive language.