While the remake of “The Taking Of Pelham 123” is not the best of the Tony Scott directed/Denzel Washington headlining thrillers, it’s still a good time. I’m a sucker actually for most of their films, though as of this writing I’ve yet to see “Man On Fire.” Washington and Scott made several action pictures together. You depend on Scott to work in all the fast cuts to wake up your pulse and allow Washington to form a variety of characters. Denzel Washington didn’t have to appear like the macho tough guy with the ripped muscles. In “Pelham,” it could not be more evident.
Washington plays Walter Garber (first name salute to Walter Matthau of the original film), a dispatch operator for the New York City subway line with years of experience in all facets of operation and management. However, he’s been demoted due to an ongoing investigation that he has accepted bribes. Now let me say that I like this angle. He’s not a typical alcoholic or drug addict that we might have seen a Bruce Willis guy do one too many times. This is something different and unexpected. Washington also appears with a pot belly, glasses and no fashion sense. He’s not a decorated war veteran. This is not an action hero. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland got it just right, with this character at least.
John Travolta is your bad guy known as Ryder, and I’m afraid he’s cut from similar cloths of his other career bad guys. He screams in the same way. He has the psycho meltdown attempts at hilarity. So he’s more of the same really.
Ryder and his crew hijack one car off the subway line that comes out of Pelham Bay, NY. Garber answers the call from Ryder with his demands for money within the hour or a hostage will get killed minute by minute after the deadline.
Now Helgeland and Scott are very aware of the absurdity going on here. When the apathetic Mayor (a welcome James Gandolfini) agrees to pay the cash, it has to be transported all the way from the bank reserve in Brooklyn. This requires Scott’s signature moves of racing police cars and bikes through congested New York City to get it to Ryder before the deadline. Only midway through this long sequence which gobbles up tons of the film’s running time, does someone ask why they just didn’t use the helicopter. Cue my colleague Miguel E Rodriguez: “Then there wouldn’t be a movie!!!!”
As much as I like the action shots, because I’m a guilty pleasure sucker for that stuff, I have to insist that there still could’ve been a movie; a better movie. Helgeland’s script wasn’t imaginative enough, or the producers insisted on more car crashes and things blowing up real good. The original with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw maintained tension for its two hour running time. This remake could have learned a little more from its ancestor. Two great actors are at your disposal, and you might have gotten some good dialogue like that of Clarice & Hannibal, perhaps.
Still, the conversations between Washington and Travolta are serviceable on at least one side with most credit going to Washington. Surprises into the Garber character keep the film interesting. Travolta? Well, I saw this guy in “Face/Off” and “Broken Arrow” and “Swordfish” and on and on.
“The Taking Of Pelham 123” always had my attention. Yet, I wish it showed me even more new things than just its unlikely hero. Denzel Washington shouldn’t have to be the only one putting in overtime.