Excellent acting can save almost anything. Even the most mediocre script or hamfisted direction can usually be manipulated and salvaged by a couple of pros performing at their thespian peak. It doesn’t always work -- the actors can and often do make their obvious attempts known, stealing so much of the limelight that the project can't help but implode. But for something like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a routine remake of a '70s pulp novel/post-modern thriller, star power is the all-important ingredient. The work of Denzel Washington and John Travolta elevates material that otherwise sits flatly on the screen. No matter how hard director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland try, the hijack/hostage material here plays as dated, and in some instances, dull.
For recently demoted NYC Transit Authority official Walter Garber (Washington), working the dispatcher's desk is just the latest in a rash of embarrassments. Under investigation for taking bribes, the longtime civil servant is resolved to do his job and not make waves. Naturally, all that changes when the subway out of Pelham City station is hijacked by four gun-toting criminals. Led by the mysterious "Mr. Ryder" (Travolta), their demands are simple -- $10 million in one hour. If the delivery is late, they will kill one hostage for every minute over 60 they have to wait. Initially, the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is convinced that the NYPD, under the direction of hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) will get the situation under control. But Ryder will only deal with Garber, and when he makes his deadly intentions known, the former front office man must save the day. Article continues below
If you are looking for a simple, straightforward mainstream thriller without a lot of narrative bells and whistles, this newest version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 will definitely satisfy said pedestrian needs. Sure, Scott seems convinced that neo-'90s shaky-cam chase scenes and rapid-fire editing are brand new and novel cinematic techniques and the script gives Washington and Travolta all the best lines, but a story like this draws us in. We wonder how the crime will be committed, how far the hijackers will go, what elements will aid in the investigation, and of course, how the last act money delivery/denouement will play out. And since our leads are compelling in their own individual ways, we're willing to see where it takes us.
But there is nothing really new here, no novelty or attempt to reinvent the genre. Unlike Inside Man, which took this kind of pot-boiler and introduced all manner of intriguing new aspects to the storyline, Pelham plays it safe. Early on, Washington's character is considered a suspect, his recent bout with internal affairs cranking up his possible accomplice profile. That subplot is quickly and cleanly done away with, however. Similarly, Travolta is finally figured out, and his high roller reality is really interesting. Sadly, nothing is done with it. Indeed, Pelham is just two guys squaring off, usually with engaging results. Some of the supporting players aid in the electricity (Gandolfini is especially fun), while others do their journeyman best and fade into the backdrop.
It's safe to say that, without Washington and Travolta, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 would have been a disaster. We never question the resolution, never believe in anything other than the standard Hollywood hero/hostage formula. The lack of suspense is stunning, considering the amount of effort put into creating same, and even when the guns start blazing, the outcome seems predetermined by the casting. Three decades ago, Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw delivered their cynical, satisfying take on this tale. In 2009, it's all meaningless movie mechanics, nothing more.