The Taking of Pelham 123

A Review by Jason L. King

Starring: John Travolta, Denzel Washington, John Turturro
Directed by: Tony Scott
Rated: R for language, violence
Movie Released: 2009

Final Grade:

I have to admit I was not extremely excited about The Taking of Pelham 123 since I first saw the trailer for it in April. Once I saw the red band exclusive clip with Travolta in, I was even less interested. But, it was directed by Tony Scott, a director who impressed me from his start up all the way to the film “The Fan.” The problem was, Tony Scott hasn’t impressed me since 1996. I’ve been hoping that Tony Scott will once again bring magic to the big screen, so I found myself once again diving headfirst into another Tony Scott film.

For those who don’t know what The Taking of Pelham 123 is, it is a film based off a 1974 film of the same name (except they spelled it out “One, Two, Three”) starring Walter Matthau. It is the tale of 4 hijackers who take over a subway train and hold its passengers for ransom. With only an hour before the hijackers begin killing hostages it is up to a dispatcher to talk them down and get everyone out of the situation alive and well.

First of all, let the record be known that I actually liked what Tony Scott did with this film. Prior to this Scott made films like Man on Fire, Domino and Deja Vu, films that reek of artistic grey-green grainy shots and choppy ADD induced cuts and bright flashes of light. Someone must have pulled him off to the side and told him that it wasn’t doing anything for the film but was causing a few seizures in the theaters. The Taking of Pelham 123 is shot very well. It’s not over artistic and his directing choices actually pushes the storyboard quite well. There were very few moments that I felt he was just doing something to be “arty” or make a statement, but instead just directed a decent scene to scene action movie.

Denzel Washington does an OK job in the film, although his performance is not one that is going to make you stand up and cheer for the guy. In the back ground supporting him you have John Turturro playing a hostage negotiator who helps Washington make it through the scenario, and James Gandolfini who tosses aside his Tony Soprano role and puts on his Rudy Guiliani hat, playing the New York City mayor who is reluctant to deal with the situation. Turturro and Gandolfini do a decent job, but their performances are over shadowed by their co-stars.

Where this subway train film derails (pun intended) can’t be pinpointed down to just one small thing but a compilation of little things that make the film an unsuccessful venture as a whole. The first element that doesn’t work in this film is John Travolta. Travolta hams it up on screen as a handlebar mustached, tattooed hijacker who is willing to go to any means necessary to get his money. The problem is he plays a crazy person like an idiot. He’s not believable, and instead comes off as a crazed supervillian rather than a hostage taker. Mix that in with the amount of money he would owe to the “swear jar” after making this film, you might begin to wonder if he actually got a paycheck at the end of the project. ($1 times 3 million “f-words” = his salary for the film perhaps?) Now, swearing doesn’t normally stand out to me too much unless it is poorly done. In this case it was. Never since the likes of Gigli with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez have I seen so many useless F words thrown in there “just because.” It was like a team of 10 year old kids who just learned how to swear wrote the script, handed it to the studio and then Travolta threw in a few extra F words for good measure. But you can’t blame Travolta alone, it is a prominent thing throughout the film: every minor character has to get their F word in as well just in case we didn’t hear Travolta do it. Director Tony Scott probably had to clean all their mouths out with soap every night after the shoot!

Secondly we have this messed up car chase scene where they must deliver the money from the bank on one side of town to Travolta’s subway car. We have speeding cop cars trying to deliver the money by the deadline with the help of helicopter air support and the whole time as a viewer I was wondering “Why didn’t they take a helicopter?” Alas, I was not alone in my thoughts as Gandolfini throws out a line in the film that says, “Why didn’t we take the chopper?” Good question James. And I’ve even got an answer for you. The answer is …they tried to take something from the original (there was a scene much like it in the original film) and it gave Tony Scott some time to have fun with a little bit of choppy driving scenes. The problem was that in the original this plot point worked, in this one it seems tiresome, and just a pointless way to try an inject some adrenaline into the plot.

Perhaps one of the corniest parts of the film is a scene where Garber (Denzel Washington) is getting onto a helicopter and talking to his wife. He’s trying to put on this sentimental speech about how she needs to know that he loves her, even if he doesn’t come home and the two start arguing over how much milk he should bring home upon his survival. Half gallon or whole gallon, who cares? If it was a clever attempt to be funny it actually fell flat on its face. Just one more example of the many ways this film went horribly wrong.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the newer version of Pelham 123 is that Tony Scott’s vision was an action film. A high octane action film with over the top characters. He took the original plot and flipped it on its head, only loosely basing the film off the original. Sure, they are both about hijacked subway cars, a dispatcher named Garber and a plot that makes a lot of money but in the end the details have all be re imagined. And sadly enough this version just doesn’t have the same flair to it.

Should you make The Taking of Pelham 123 your next movie night? Absolutely not. In my opinion, it is the best Tony Scott film I have seen in almost 10 years (except for Spy Game perhaps- but I don’t really remember it). But it is still a mediocre film at best that is probably a waste of celluloid and a waste of time.

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