Published Jun 11, 2009Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) is an understated, compelling piece of mid-'70s pulp cinema, and one hell of a good heist flick. Leave it to Tony Scott to explode the whole thing into something as loud, obnoxious and dumb as anything that's likely to hit multiplexes this year.
Pelham sees John Travolta back in action movie mode as a Wall Street-savvy terrorist (operating under the name "Ryder," a nod to Robert Shaw's character in the original, which is as unsubtle as anything in the film), who hijacks the titular NYC subway train and demands that charismatically deferential Transit Authority official Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) arrange for ten million dollars to be delivered to him as ransom for the hostages.
Between Ryder, Garber and the ten million in cash that the dispassionate mayor (James Gandolfini) happily hands over are an overeager NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro) and an equally dogged screenplay by Brian Helgeland that's muddied as much by its contrived self-seriousness as Travolta's Razzie-worthy line readings.
While Washington is passable as Garber (even if his man-of-the-hour stoicism falls well short of the crotchety swagger of Walter Matthau's in the original), Travolta's leathery gangbanger get-up and unsparing deployment of bullets and m-f bombs stand as an outright perversion of Robert Shaw's unflappable limey cool. Travolta seems to be channelling something of his overblown Travolta-as-Nic-Cage-as-Travolta histrionics from John Woo's Face/Off, which while working wonderfully within the topsy-turvy logic of that film does nothing here to redeem him from his well-earned reputation as one of Hollywood's top-shelf hacks.
As awful as both Travolta and Helgeland's script are, it's Scott who in thinking that he could turn a taught procedural into a summer movie blockbuster by shoehorning in a few perfunctory chase scenes, stick-ups and some superficial slo-mo tension that's most responsible for the film's strained sluggishness. (Sony)