I am convinced that The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 would be a much better film without Denzel Washington and John Travolta.
I am not suggesting that their acting ability is somehow insufficient (though Travolta, at times, amps up the ham factor). Rather, with star wattage like those leads, expectations are much higher for a film as slight as this. Had this film been cast with a couple unknowns – and if director Tony Scott would switch to decaffeinated – I'm convinced this film would be better received.
It has all the core elements needed for nail-biting: electricity-generating confrontations, clock-ticking races and a time-tested premise of the little man up against the system. But with the presence of two Oscar-nominated actors, there comes the promise of so much more.
As it stands now, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a loud, frenetic, faint breeze of a movie that loses its impact the minute the lights fade on during the closing credits. Based on the workman-like 1974 original (which was far from a classic and fair game for a reboot), this Pelham follows the same route as the original subway thriller. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) sprinkles on the grit and provides more information on its leads. The backstories are a nice touch, had they been given a chance to flourish. But they are shelved in favor of endless, needless car chases throughout the city, which Scott directs with his usual Ritalin-starved flair for all things shiny and loud.
Travolta's hair-trigger hijacker, Ryder, does not hold much empathy even with the additional information about his woes. But Garber, Washington's humbled transit dispatcher, is layered just enough to keep us wanting to hang with him a little longer.
The film is frustratingly populated with a host of go-to supporting players, none of whom are given much to do outside of barking a few lines as Scott dizzyingly swirls and swivels his camera around them as though the director were on some exercise routine that does not allow him to stay seated for more than a few seconds. John Turturro, James Gandolfini and Luis Guzman all show up to the party, but are kept on a very short leash.
It's best not to dwell on the some of the cavernous plot holes in the film's story (just why are Ryder's henchmen so nonchalant about discovering a passenger video-conferencing the whole ordeal with his needy girlfriend? Any why are they so quick to dismiss their leader after following his orders without question?) and enjoy the frenetic ride when it does stay on track.
But every time the camera gets stationary for a millisecond on Washington's calm-in-the-storm's-center, I could not help but yearn for a hint of even the actor's lesser films (like the strikingly similar but infinitely more engaging Inside Man) and want more than Scott is capable of delivering as a director. Had he not been behind the controls, and had this remake been cast with lesser-known dramatic leads, Pelham may have coasted through its rough patches on its adrenaline and audacity alone.
As is, Pelham will provide viewers with a couple hours of low-rent escapism, but those searching for a weighty dissertation on corporate greed, classism, or any other of the subjects it flirts with, you may want to catch the next summer cinematic train.