Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (movie review)

(Below is a review that will soon be posted at Folio Weekly)

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
By Philip Booth

Overhead shots of New York City -- freeze frames, zooms, blurred motion -- open "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," Tony Scott's engaging remake of the movie of the same name released 35 years ago, based on the John Godey novel that also inspired a subpar 1998 television movie. The vibe, with a busy and intimidating Manhattan, feels like a mix of '70s urban grit with a contemporary sensibility, state-of-the-art digital video effects amped with crunchy metal guitars and urban rhythms.

Soon enough, Scott takes a more traditional narrative approach, alternating between the titular train, named for the departure time from its origination point at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, and a sleek transit command center. There, using high-tech tracking devices, transportation engineers monitor the comings and goings of the city's latticework of underground trains.

It's a crackling first 10 minutes or so of a summer thriller that mostly does its job. That's thanks to a taut script by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River," "L.A. Confidential") and potent performances by Denzel Washington, working with director Scott for the fourth time, and John Travolta.

Washington, in the role originally played by Walter Matthau, looks the part of a buttoned-down professional, a bit world weary and beaten down. He's Walter Garber, a subway dispatcher whose declarations of being a Regular Joe -- "I'm just a guy" -- run counter to the fact that he's been demoted from a higher managerial position due to some kind of misdoing, initially unidentified. His lucky, or unlucky, chance at redemption comes courtesy of a crisis, as Garber happens to be the dispatcher manning the mic when a cruelly calculating nutball, Ryder, effectively played by John Travolta in scary badass mode, takes hostages on a train.

"What is the going rate for a New York City hostage today?" Ryder, whose crew of armed and hairy tough guys includes a prison-hardened baddies played by Luis Guzman, asks Garber. It's not a rhetorical question -- Ryder has pledged to kill off the passengers, at the rate of one a minute, if he doesn't get what he wants within the hour. He's demonstrated his willingness to shed blood for the sake of his cause, in gory sequences that justify the film's "R" rating. It turns out that the going rate is $10 million, or about 10 times that of the amount demanded in the original movie.

The suspense, heightened by on-screen graphics letting viewers know how much time remains before Ryder begins committing (more) bloody mayhem, centers, obviously, on whether Transit authorities, an NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro), and a not particularly competent mayor (James Gandolfini) will be clever enough to resolve the hostage crisis with little or no collateral damage.

Also intriguing, though, is the mystery of the identity of Ryder, a guy seemingly obsessed with the rising and falling of the Dow. Quick to engage in overly intimate and personal conversation with strangers he likes, and just as quick to verbally abuse those he doesn't, he calls everyone "man" and brags about a trip to Iceland he took with a model.

Audiences likely will suss out the professional background of Ryder more quickly than the cops do (the kidnapper, played by Robert Shaw in 1974, was called Mr Blue; his color-coded name and those of his companions in crime were among the elements that reportedly inspired Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs").

"Pelham" essentially is a broadly entertaining cat-and-mouse game, with Washington as the reluctant negotiator, surprisingly talented at verbal sparring on the cuff, sure to bring his improvisatory skills to play in a more direct encounter with the bad guys.

Oddly comic, and adding to the hurly-burly of the action, are several sequences detailing the results of the NYPD to race to the scene with the requested stash of cash -- traffic snafus and overeager drivers mean car mishaps galore. Clearly intended to offset the talkiness elsewhere in the film, these impressively choreographed crashes and explosions don't really detract from an action movie that seldom disappoints.

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