Back in 1974, the big screen audience was introduced to the world of Lt. Garber and Blue. It was a world of danger, death, and quick timing. Every minute that passed had lives hanging in the balance, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats. The movie was called The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and it starred Walter Matthau as the everyman and Robert Shaw as the terrorist (is that the right word? he does terrorize folks). I have not seen that movie. I know, that is a shocking revelation, but believe me when I say there are a ton of movies out there I have not seen yet.
This new take on the John Godey source novel seems to use a slightly different approach than the original. "But how can you say that if you have not seen the original?" you may say. Well, it is pretty easy to see just looking at the names involved. In the place of Walter Matthau you have Denzel Washington, thus changing the complete dynamic of the everyman. Denzel has an inherent intelligence around him that comes to all of his roles, this makes him a little difficult to identify with as the everyman, unlike Walter Matthau who has that aura of a guy you could just hang around with, thus easier to relate to. Then you have John Travolta slipping into the Robert Shaw role. Now, I cannot place Shaw at all, but the idea of Travolta as a bad ass is a little comical. Finally, slip Tony Scott into Joseph Sargent's director's chair and you have an intrinsically different experience. Those two directors are, shall we say, just a little bit different.
The film opens with an annoying opening credit sequence that is reminiscent of one of those anti-piracy ads you see on DVDs. It gives the impression of a student film with its overuse of camera effects like quick cuts and jittery slow motion. Combine that with an opening score that severely overuses the sound of a train horn. Seriously, how many times can you listen to that whistle blow? I cannot say these opening moments were terribly inspiring.
What followed those credits was 100 minutes of mediocrity edited in the cliche MTV-style of quick cuts, swish pans, and in-your-face flash for the ADD-addled youth of the nation. Yes, it does tone down somewhat, but the movie still feels as if it has been edited and processed to within an inch of its life.
The story has Walter Garber (Washington) as a train dispatcher, who is also being investigated for taking a bribe. He is watching the trains go by on his screen, smooth as silk, that its until something goes wrong. Pelham 1 2 3 starts acting strange. Garber watches it stop, unexpectedly, and then separate a few cars that proceed to move back down the track. He immediately gets on the mic and tries to ascertain what is going on.
Down on the tracks we find John Travolta, calling himself Ryder (rather than Robert Shaw's Blue), and his small group of merry men, including Luis Guzman. They are busy taking car of immobilizing the train, setting up their own monitoring and getting their plan underway. This is where the fun begins.
The movie is not terrible, but it is not all that awe-inspiring either. The good comes in the form of the give and take between Washington and Travolta, particularly from Washington's side of the microphone. There is plenty of give and take between the two as Garber tries to extricate himself from the situation while not getting anyone killed. Meanwhile, Ryder is bugnuts crazy, but crazy like a fox. The man may be something of a loose cannon, but he is also cold and calculating, he remembers his details and does not get tripped up. So, while it may not be the most intelligent of scripts, the performers do their best to inject a high level of intensity into it.
The story is a familiar one, so I do not feel the need to go into this in too much detail, suffice to say, the tension is there, and it will hold your interest. The problem is that when it comes to an end you will walk away and soon forget it, possibly wishing you'd stayed home and watched the original.
The good of the film lies almost squarely with Denzel Washington. I could watch the man read a phone book. I am not always his biggest fan, but there is no denying his ability to make a character compelling. He does a great job here making the character relatable and believable in the situation. I also liked Travolta about half the time. There were times when he had a nice brand of sly evil going that made him interesting. Luis Guzman also turns in a fine performance. The man is a chameleon.
The bad falls somewhat on the shoulders of Travolta. He often takes his bad guy shtick over the top and it does not land all that well, especially when his voice gets all high as spits out the f-bombs. James Gandolfini also falls under the bad as his slimy mayor performance did not strike me as being genuine.
The ugly award goes to Tony Scott. As surprising as it is, his over-the-top direction, frenetic camera work, and mixing of speeds and stock does not work all that well here, proving to be more of a distraction than anything else. I am surprised because I have generally enjoyed his work and his use of the excess, this includes recent outings like Deja Vu, Man on Fire, and even Domino. A little more restraint and focus would have been appreciated. Then there is the way the action is staged, especially the police convoy, it is staged in rather idiotic fashion that sets up some of the dramatic crashes that make no sense. I am not sure they really thought this through prior to shooting it. This convoy leads to Gandolfini's best line of the movie.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland does not escape criticism, as while the screenplay has its moments, it has some mind bogglingly silly moments two. Among the moments you can include every scene between the kid and his webcam girlfriend, ridiculous, especially considering what they do and where it can be seen. Another moment would be the cops lines after picking up the ransom money, brilliant (but not really).
Bottom Line. Yes, the movie is a little fun and has its moments of genuine tension and surprise but on the whole it fails to deliver a truly memorable experience. The editing takes it to within an inch of its life, the performances wildly fluctuate, and some of the silliness should have been avoided. Still, you could do worse (I think Land of the Lost is still playing).