Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 ** ½
Directed by:
Tony Scott.
Written By: Brian Helgeland based on the novel by John Godey.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Walter Garber), John Travolta (Ryder), Luis Guzmán (Phil Ramos), Victor Gojcaj (Bashkim), John Turturro (Camonetti), James Gandolfini (Mayor), Michael Rispoli (John Johnson), Ramon Rodriguez (Delgado), John Benjamin Hickey (Deputy Mayor LaSalle).

Sometimes less is more. Case in point, Tony Scott’s remake of the minor 1974 classic movie, The Taking of Pelham 123. This is a classic thriller set-up of a madmen with a gun who takes hostages and communicates via radio with a normal guy just trying to do his job. This should be an intense thriller. The screenplay, by Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential, Mystic River) is intelligent, and is not just an excuse to string together one action sequence after another – but actually contains some good dialogue, and a chance for a great a cast to deliver some great performances – which they do. The problem is, we cannot concentrate on all the good in the movie, because Scott spends all of his time whipping his camera around in flashy movements, shooting nearly every scene in either slow or fast motion, and constantly freeze framing to let us know how long we have before the deadline – which is pointless since the characters seemingly tell us in every scene. This is a movie that is undone by its style. A little calmer, and this could have been one of the best thrillers of the year.

The movie stars John Travolta as “Ryder”, who along with his team take over a subway car in New York City. His plan is pretty much perfect. He knows exactly what to do to disconnect the cars, so he only has to control hostages on a single car instead of 10. He knows the precise spot to park the car so he can see people coming from either direction hundreds of yards in advance. He knows just how much money the city can get in a short a time period - $10 million – and demands that and nothing more. He gives them an hour to get the money, and for each minute they go above the deadline, says a hostage will get killed. Since he and his men have already killed a few people, the police know he means business.

The guy on the other end of the line is not a cop, but a transit control dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Once a big shot in transit control, he’s been demoted pending the outcome of a bribery investigation. Despite the fact that Ryder could talk to any number of people, including hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro), he insists on talking to Garber. He likes him, and feels they have a repore. He also likes screwing with Garber and his head – like in an intense sequence when he forces Garber to tell him what really happened with the bribery investigation, under the threat of killing an innocent hostage.

Helgeland’s screenplay is good in the way that it never really goes over the top. Travolta is great at playing these types of bad guys, and he delivers a wonderful performance here. He swears like a gangster in a Scorsese movie, and yet he doesn’t give into his impulse to go too far over the top. Ryder strikes us as someone who may actually be smart enough to do what he is doing, and ruthless enough to carry through on his threat. Washington has a less flashy role, but he is equally good. He is one of the few major movie stars who can play an everyman convincingly, and he does that perfectly here. He seems tired, even before Ryder gets on that radio, and just beaten down by life, trying to make it one day at a time. When the movie eventually requires him to become the “action hero”, it wisely never makes him into a superman. He does nothing in this film that seems that far out of line with who he is.

Surrounding these two characters are a talented supporting cast, who make their somewhat underwritten roles come to life. Luis Guzman as one of Ryder’s henchmen is all nervous energy and paranoia, and he does it wonderfully. Turturro as the hostage negotiator, who like Washington, isn’t really a hero, just a guy trying to do his job. And best of all James Gandolfini as the troubled mayor of New York. This could have been a throwaway role, but Gandolfini makes him into a realistic politician. It’s quite a piece of acting.

And yet, despite of all the things the movie does right, I could not fully give myself over to it because of Scott’s hyper stylization of the material. Scott has made movies in the same style before – most notably Man on Fire and Domino, two films I actually quite liked. But in those films, the insane style Scott used was appropriate to the material. In The Taking of Pelham 123 he is not making a revenge thriller or a straight ahead action movie – but what should have been more of a character study with action thrown into the mix. But the style makes us forget the characters, because it calls too much attention to itself. The movie becomes not what it is about – not the plot, not the characters – but the style. And style can only take you so far.

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