The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a conversation, a few words exchanged between two men thrust into a high-pressure situation. There’s not much more to Pelham than that, not even enough really, to fill out the minimum ninety minutes necessary for any major Hollywood movie. Director Tony Scott compensates, by stuffing the moments between their words with trippy, stylistic cityscapes which have absolutely nothing to do with what’s going on in the story except as a time killer. Eventually the film’s two protagonists stop talking and Pelham simply runs out of track, devolving into a series of bad action movie clichés and even worse, more meaningless, skyscraper footage.
Still at first it’s a conversation, and an interesting one at that. Denzel Washington stars as Walter Garber, a New York City subway dispatcher who happens to be the man on the mic when one of their trains gets hijacked. On the other end of the radio is a scruffy looking John Travolta, playing the film’s villain and lead hijacker. He calls himself Ryder and wears obnoxious sunglasses even though he’s in a dark train tunnel and if he wanted to obscure his identity he’d probably be better served by a rubber Halloween mask. I’d go with Richard Nixon. If you’re a crook, you can’t go wrong with Nixon.
Ryder has hostages and he uses them to keep Garber on the radio. Around each of them the city scrambles, Walter in his far off subway control center Ryder in the front of his stopped subway car with a gun pointed at the innocent standing closest to him. Everything slowly goes to hell but they keep talking. Garber because he has to, Ryder… well we never truly know why Ryder spends so much time on the radio when he’d probably be better served worrying about his hostages. But stay on the radio he does, toying with Garber and just for the hell of it, forcing Walter to admit things he’d rather keep his mouth shut about.
As long as Ryder and Garber keep talking the film works well enough, the kind of movie that might fit comfortably on a shelf with something like Phone Booth. Unfortunately all this talking has to go somewhere eventually, and when the film needs a resolution it all goes to hell. For no reason at all Walter Garber morphs from humble civil servant and family man into a gun-waving, car stealing, John McClane knockoff. At some point all that talking just isn’t enough for Tony Scott and the movie starts pandering to the Michael Bay crowd with ridiculous out of character action sequences that send the whole thing right off the rails.
That train wreck ending might be more forgivable if the rest of the film had been more substantive, but it’s a fairly meaningless, if well acted conversation wedged in between some even more meaningless, blurry city footage. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 throws in a few gratuitous car crashes to try and maintain some level of excitement, but they’re easily spotted for the cheap audience response gimmicks that they are. Solid performances from Washington and Travolta are wasted on a script that probably wasn’t worth making and a movie that’s definitely not worth seeing.