It's obvious why Tony Scott keeps offering Denzel Washington the leading roles in his realism-lite features, but it's a far more complex mystery to figure out why Washington keeps accepting. I happened to like their last pairing, Déjà Vu, against my better instincts, but it felt fresh, and was logically unpredictable; and still not that great a flick. The filmThe Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, as well as its title, are as subtle as an air-raid siren in a Port-a-Potty. The source novel and original movie (both of which dampen any "fresh" element) are unfamiliar to me, but I can't imagine either being more marginalized than this. To paraphrase a recurring quip from John Travolta's uninspired villain, Ryder, we need a movie that doesn't equal up to the sum of its admittedly enjoyable parts; check me on it. Check, we have The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
The dependable Denzel plays Walter Garber, a train exec demoted to dispatcher due to an alleged bribery incident. He's a Regular Joe, and that's where my first problem lies. I can't recall any films when Denzel took an inch of shit from anyone, so it's a stretch for me to view him here as a hard-luck schmo. Is that a stretch itself? Maybe, but his impeccable line readings do nothing to convince me that a more introspective actor wouldn't have fit the role better, since the movie is much more comfortable in its dialogue than its "action." Garber is working the radio the day the Pelham 1 2 3 train line is hijacked and brought to a halt in an abandoned tunnel. The one doing the hijacking is Ryder, an alias used by Travolta. He strikes up an initial conversation with Garber and develops a communicative bond with him that lasts the first two-thirds of the movie. Largely, this is the film's largest asset, as it can pretend to be brainier than the happenings outside of the train station and tunnels, which amount to little more than traffic and an incessant amount of swipe edits. However, when I think about how goofy Travolta's performance is, compared to the understatement of Washington's, I wonder why I feel that way.
Ryder, who's always quick to check out the ebbs and flows of the stock market, is hoping for a big payday. With a squad of three others, including a boring Luiz Guzman, Ryder holds a single train car of hostages captive. He demands a ransom of $10 million, in an hour, or a hostage a minute will die. He dictates a divisible price for the life of each victim, and there are money references all over the place (making me think there's supposed to be a parallel to something in today's society somewhere), but really, he just lays out the same old shtick that every cash-grubbing criminal does. Among these bland hostages are a black man used stereotypically (which he even comments on), a woman and her child, some other people, and the conductor. There's a young male who is talking to his girlfriend through webcam on his laptop when everything goes down. The webcam stays on for a while, allowing live streamed footage of the train car on the Internet. This plot point adds up to nothing, even when it is eventually noticed by the bad guys. I'm glad no more time was spent on the guy and his girlfriend, but I still expected something more.
Adding wafer-thin roles to the mix are John Turturro as negotiator Camonetti, and James Gandolfini as a Mayor. Not that they aren't good turns, but they're generic and have all the depth of an ankle sock. Ryder makes it clear he only wants to talk to Garber, and except for a few rude comments to these two guys, it stays that way. Mayor and Camonetti voice the usual chatter from behind the scenes, as do the rest of the cast. Garber has a wife that has little to do except give Garber some kind of emotional center, which doesn't work all that well, since she's only shown when Garber has to contact her.
There are some gunshots, filmed quite violently, including a scene that has cops circling two characters and opening fire on them. I can only hope they used cop-deflecting bullets, as opening fire in a circle is never a smart choice. Other than the shootings, there some running, some accident-driven ransom delivering, and a tiny bit of actual physical violence. That's about it as far as tension goes, but don't let Tony Scott's camera movement tell you that. He films a character shrugging with sweeping arcs, and the very act of sitting down talking on a phone is filmed as if meth was a sedative. Never is this more blatant than the opening credit sequences and the sporadic, in-your-face time captions that make more appearances than memorable dialogue. There are seriously eight or more instances of timekeeping (until the deadline an hour away). That's just averaged out to one caption for every eight minutes and thirty seconds, not taking into account they weren't separated equally, and the characters themselves reference Ryder's deadline countless times. A house doesn't burn any greater just because someone keeps stating that it's on fire.
The eventual conclusion is subdued and anti-climactic. The movie never plays against type, even when Travolta screams, "I'm crrrraaaazy, motherfucker!" again and again into his phone. A crazier person would be the guy who wasted all that fake tattoo ink on Travolta's fat neck. With honed dialogue, it could have been a really exciting mumble-core flick, and less mainstream cast and crew could have raised the material from its glossy Hollywood swamp. This would have been a great '40s era Hitchcock effort. Tough luck, though. Even a skewed take on the unoriginal plotline would have added a second layer to this shallow story. I think that's what pisses me off the most, other than the large amount of money paid off to the three principal players. There isn't a single moment that sticks out, because it's all been seen before. If you smashed the movie Speed into half its runtime, folded it in two, then stretched it back to feature-length, you'd still have a more fun movie than The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
As if Tony Scott would allow a movie of his to be released without being overly lit, riddled with detail-indulged sets and helicopter-mounted location shots. It's a good-looking movie that is close to ruined by Scott's aggravating twitchy camera style. I seriously just want to watch characters talk sometimes, without their presence witnessed from seven different angles. The disc's sound is as busy as the visuals. You hear the conversation between Garber and Ryder quite well. You also hear a soundtrack with no lack of orchestral hits and bass drums acting as a metronome for all of the movie's beats. I do believe the rats in the train tunnels were miked up.
There are 45 long minutes of background features in "No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 1 2 3" and "The Third Rail: New York Underground." The latter is an excessive look at making the movie and the trials and tribulations that go along with filming unnecessary action sequences. Tough shit if it was hard for you. Figure out a shorter way to depict money being driven down the road. The second feature is loads better, as it talks about New York subways, and everyone shares anecdotes and things.
There are two commentaries on this son of a gun. It shames me that the three hours watching them will amount to no more than a few sentences. The first one is with Tony Scott and is enjoyable as his usually are, because he's intelligent and involved in the process of moviemaking like few are. But he's going on and on about this particular movie, which doesn't suit me. Incidental stories are nice, but anytime he gets slightly technical, I want to get defensive. The other commentary is with screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black. There's is slightly less irritating, as they talk about what makes the project important to them. Since they had nothing to do with the editing, I liked their input more.
And that's it for this serviceable but forgettable vehicle of a thriller. It's going to sit well with a lot of people, because it isn't a terrible movie in the least. It just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Wait until it's on cable to watch it, unless you see something that you think is better. Watch that instead.