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Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123

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The Taking of Pelham 123 is just one of many 21st updates of classic movies from decades ago. It takes the original's core idea and morphs it into a modern day, real-time thriller about issues that have been on everybody's minds since  9/11. This modern telling of the original film's tale is an "in the moment, forget the logic" movie that brings two of Hollywood's most recognisable actors and pits them head to head for the first time. The result is an entertaining if forgettable film – sometimes that's good enough.

Based on the novel, as well as an original 1974 movie, both by the same name, Pelham 123 follows an ordinary train dispatcher, Walter Garber, who gets caught up in an extraordinary set of circumstances. While on duty he gets a call from an aggressive criminal who has hijacked a city train full of hostages. He demands $10 million and gives Walter, and the city of New York, one hour to get the money or he starts killing the hostages one by one.

An important thing for a thriller of this nature is that the pace has to always be brisk, with every action having an immediate impact on the next. If not the film loses its edge and doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat. Pelham 123 thankfully is successful at at least that aspect. Since the movie takes place in real time (not too dissimilar in nature to the TV series 24), there's no time for resting or collection of thought. Time is very much of the essence, and the movie importantly manages to convey that rather well.

Even the film's set up doesn't waste any time… it doesn't have any. As soon as the movie starts we see John Travolta's train hijacker ("Ryder" as he self-apoints himself) making his way to the New York underground and taking the train conductor hostage at gunpoint. Soon enough he makes the first call to the Train Control Centre of which Denzel Washington's Walker Garber is the unlucky answerer. The conditions of the negotiation are given and so the game starts. That's just the start of the screws tightening, and as the movie goes on they only get tighter and tighter.

When a movie has as fast pace as this one does, there are undoubtedly leaps of logic in tow. These are to the film's detriment upon further reflection, but in the moment most people will not even notice them much less be bothered by them in any way. Not to give too much away, certain points in the film are there only to further the storyline or heighten the tension. And these are a bit eye-rolling. One notable example is when a SWAT sniper has an opportunity to shoot one of Ryder's men on the train. Just as he's about to pull the trigger, a rat suddenly appears and bites his leg. Again, that sort of thing isn't too bothersome "in the moment" but in hindsight it's very noticeable.

Washington and Travolta star in the same film together for the first time ever (that sounds unbelievable but it's true), one of the film's best qualities is just seeing them play off of one another. Travolta has the showier role, getting to look tough with a leather jacket and huge neck tattoo, all the while getting to spout unnecessarily explicit swear words (he drops the motherf***er bomb more times than I can remember). One senses that screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for co-writing LA Confidential) just threw in generic criminal elements because it was easy.This is rather disappointing.

Washington has the more difficult role to play, but his years of experience allow him to handle the role very well. Reportedly he gained 40 pounds for the role, as well as donning thick eyeglasses, making it one of his least recognisable roles to moviegoers used to seeing him fit and handsome as the leading man. For most of the movie, Washington sits behind a desk and on the other end of a microphone to Travolta's train hijacker. The fact that the movie works just goes to show what good actors Washington and Travolta are.

What really holds the film back is Tony Scott's direction; he's working with Washington for the fourth time here. His usual style of overly jittery camera movement, slow-motion, blurs and intermittent trailing frame rates make for an uneasy, queasy watch whenever anything resembling action is taking place. It's a relief when the focus is conversation and the camera stops moving. Scott is just doing what he's always done, but in previous efforts the content reflects the style (Man on Fire and Domino come to mind). But Pelham 123 is a straight thriller, and this sort of hyper-stylized way of working is unsuited.

Even if The Taking of Pelham 123 isn't the most memorable of thrillers, riddled with logic and plot problems, it's one of those movies to be enjoyed as it's happening. Best not to think too much about many of the details afterwards. Adding to Washington and Travolta's assured performances are the likes of John Turturro, who brings extra tension to Washington's workplace as a professional hostage negotiator, and James Gandolfini, who brings class to the role of the New York Mayor. But overall it's the well judged, thankfully full-speed pace that makes Pelham 123 enjoyable. With a thriller like this I don't really know what else you can ask for.

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