Movie Review: 'Pelham 123' Stars Denzel, Travolta, Gandolfini & NYC

Denzel Washington and John Travolta star in this remake of the 1974 thriller about a subway dispatcher attempting to resolve an underground hostage situation. Video by Columbia Pictures
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 12, 2009

If you live in a dense and complicated city, you can see despair at the bottom of your orange juice glass. How many farmers, truckers and shopkeepers does it take to get that juice on your breakfast table? What would happen if the diesel guy, the road crew, the toll taker or the fruit picker slept through the alarm clock? Cities intensify our wonder and terror at the complexity and seeming frailty of human society. If you tugged at just one little thread, would the whole thing unravel?

"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 New York, a city that barely works. At its best, when the dialogue is sharp and captures the everyone's-a-comedian banter of the Big Apple at its lippiest, the film shows how the New York Show still goes on the air, every morning, despite itself. Play your role, defend your turf, pay no mind to those other 8 million actors, and somehow it all works.

The new film, directed by Tony Scott ("Enemy of the State," "Days of Thunder," "Top Gun"), captures some of the grand venality of New York that made the original so much fun. As the lead hijacker of a No. 6 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 this film are his conversations with Denzel Washington, who plays the Matthau role, but with an important difference: The original character was a transit police lieutenant, whereas Washington plays a disgraced subway official and former dispatcher who is accidentally thrust into a leading role when a train stops where it shouldn't.

If the film stayed there -- if it 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 he meets -- it might be a good film. But this is a Tony Scott film, which means it is animated by a restless, absurd need for excess, for energy and speed and rapid, manic, dizzying camera work. And it has the usual Tony Scott tics, the misogyny and male solipsism. Women are reduced to bit players, passive, needy intrusions on the world of male jousting, 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 that a little unlikely? Isn't it rather foolish to commit a crime in a tunnel, where you can be easily cornered, contained and captured? But alas, rather than solve these problems, Scott has played whack-a-mole with verisimilitude, addressing one implausibility only to find a dozen others emerge with even more absurd implications.

Hijacking a subway train may not seem very lucrative, so the new film introduces a subplot about gaming the financial markets. And while a subway tunnel may be a rather vulnerable spot to stage a spectacular crime, in Scott's version the crooks rig up a WiFi system that gives them a window on the world. And maybe it was a little peculiar that in the original, the film ended with the schlumpy Matthau hunting down the last hijacker with low-key, old-fashioned gumshoe work. After the high energy of twists and turns of a galvanizing crime, it was almost anticlimactic. In Scott's version, we have a car chase with helicopters, crazy traffic jams and an army of cops on the loose.

And 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 -- from guy in suit to guy with gun, from ordinary Joe to action hero -- more dramatic and more ridiculous. The best analogy for this comes from the world of opera, where, in the 18th and 19th centuries, stars wielded so much clout that they inevitably warped the drama with demands for extravagant arias. The action sequence -- in this case, Washington hurtling through New York in an SUV -- is the equivalent of that showpiece, a set, formulaic but obligatory display of narcissism. Washington is a better actor than that. He should learn to say no.

But who says no to Tony Scott? Not even Tony Scott can say no to Tony Scott, and alas, the film devolves into self-indulgent silliness, a toxic cocktail of adrenaline and sentiment. You end up asking yourself: How do the few, genuinely fun bits of this movie -- 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. The show will go on.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (106 minutes, at area theaters) is rated for R for violence and pervasive language.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company