‘Pelham’ an overcaffeinated thriller | AspenTimes.com

‘Pelham’ an overcaffeinated thriller

Christy Lemire
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
In this film publicity image released by Columbia Pictures, John Travolta, is shown in a scene from "The Taking of Pelham 123." (AP Photo/Columbia/Sony Pictures, Stephen Vaughn) ** NO SALES **
AP | Sony Pictures

The way the original 1974 film’s title has been condensed tells you everything you need to know about the direction “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is headed. In these fast-paced, mixed-up times, it simply takes too long to spell out the numbers.

Then again, just knowing the director is Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Man on Fire,” ‘”Domino”) is a major indicator of the changes in store. A low-key, steadily paced thriller about a New York subway hijacking has been amped up with Scott’s trademark acrobatics: incessant camera movement, sped-up footage that jarringly cuts to slo-mo, seizure-inducing edits and a blaring soundtrack.

Considering that you have heavyweights Denzel Washington and John Travolta squaring off, with a script from Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), you just want to scream at the screen for Scott to settle down and let the exchanges play out for themselves. For the brief moments he does just that, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” can be a tense, engaging battle of wits, despite its preposterous premise.

Inspired as the original was by the John Godey novel, “Pelham” stars Travolta as Ryder, the leader of a group of baddies who take over a downtown 6 train. He demands $10 million in one hour (up from $1 million in ’74) or he’ll start killing the passengers. Washington (in the Walter Matthau role) plays Walter Garber, the dispatcher on the other end of the microphone who must listen/probe/stall/cajole as a de facto crisis manager.

Washington brings his typical grace to this rare regular-guy role, and the script fleshes out his character this time with an undercurrent of moral ambiguity that offers some welcome context. And while it’s refreshing to see Travolta make the part more of a live-wire that Robert Shaw’s understated villain, he also gets shrieky in a way that recalls his performance in the infamous “Battlefield Earth.”

Luis Guzman gets practically nothing to do as a member of Ryder’s posse, a former subway motorman, and the other two guys barely register. It’s amusing to see James Gandolfini, though, as the New York City mayor – the former “Sopranos” star on the right side of the law – who whines about having to run all over town dealing with this problem. And John Turturro is solid, as always, as a police hostage negotiator, a character that didn’t exist in the original.

Along those lines, you have to appreciate that Scott has made “Pelham” a reflection of its time, though, just as the first film was; it was also shot extensively within the city’s subway system, adding a realism to the sights and sounds. A high-tech element provides a neat twist as the story unfolds and adds to the ways Ryder and Garber can provoke and eventually understand each other.

But the prevalence of technology also makes the crime itself seem rather archaic. This is the way a criminal mastermind steals millions of dollars today, by hijacking a subway train? Granted, it is tempting to do something rash after repeatedly hearing that annoying recorded voice urging you to stand clear of the closing doors, but there have to be more efficient plans than this.

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