The Taking of Pelham 123 has every reason to be a terrible film. There was nothing particularly appealing about the ads, either billboard or television. It looked like Denzel Washington and John Travolta collecting paychecks, phoning it in and calling it a day. Therefore, it was almost like pulling teeth mustering the motivation to actually spend an hour and a half watching it. Perception, it turns out, can be misleading.
Pelham 123, a remake of a popular ‘70s film, is a solid thriller, good enough to earn the hefty price tag that comes with films in theaters. This is a lot of bang for your buck, with Turturro and James Gandolfini joining Washington and Travolta. The Brian Helgeland screenplay is more than sufficient and, barring a few over-the-top scenarios, Tony Scott’s direction keeps the pace without distracting too much from the plot.
In this version, a group of ex-cons take over a subway train in order to bribe the city of New York, via its mayor (Gandolfini) for $10 million. Much of the film is hostage negotiations. The leader (Travolta) decides that he can only talk to one dispatcher (Washington) and the two develop a sort of relationship. They don’t really become friends but they somehow become the film’s love story anyway. One gets the feeling that Washington’s character grows to like, or at least feel somehow responsible for, the Travolta character.
The ensemble is tight and adept in the film, and the subway action sequences appear real. Gandolfini, while it’s nice to see him acting again, is wasted in the role of the mayor. Any actor could have taken that part so why Gandolfini?
The real surprise is Travolta, who created one of the most entertaining villains of his career. No one really has their eyes on Travolta’s acting these days, since his recent family tragedy took him off the junket circuit. Nonetheless, Travolta is brilliant here. Washington does what’s required of him, playing the sympathetic dispatcher with a little bit of courage and a shady past. Washington is one of those reliable heroes who very nearly gives away the plot just by starring in the film; we know early on that Washington will have to carry out the role of hero.
The film’s plot revolves around money and the stock market. It isn’t exactly an easy story to buy since it’s a lot easier to track criminals when they are tied to bank accounts but nonetheless it isn’t necessary to pick things apart when what’s on screen is so entertaining.
With a lot of money at stake these days in going to the movies in the first place, it’s important that films give us our money’s worth. The Taking of Pelham 123 does what’s required of it and throws in a lot of extras – like John Turturro and Gandolfini. That makes it feel like a real bargain when you total it up.
Curiously, the film does not leave a mark and it may vanish from memory completely a few hours after viewing it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sit back and enjoy the ride anyway.