Monday, February 27, 2012

"The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009)

Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro
Written by Brian Helgelund
Directed by Tony Scott
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 106 minutes

One morning, terrorists led by a man named Ryder (John Travolta) capture a crowded New York subway train.  Ryder calls the MTA to demand a $10 million ransom, and the employee who takes the call is veteran dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Ryder demands cash in 60 minutes, or the hostages will die.  

When the police decide to take over the negotiations, Ryder demands that Garber continue to be his contact.  Despite the wishes of the police, Garber is allowed to continue talking to Ryder.  Garber has to stall the police while they attempt to figure out who Ryder is and try to retake the train without further loss of life.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is a thoroughly mediocre film, an easily skippable entry in the filmographies of pretty much everyone involved. It is the story of Walter Garber, an MTA train executive under investigation for taking a bribe by a Japanese train manufacturer. One day, after being demoted to dispatcher, one of his trains, Pelham 123, is hijacked by gun-toting thugs led with vicious precision by a man who only calls himself "Ryder." Ryder claims that he will kill a hostage on the train every minute if he isn't given ten million dollars in cash in an hour.

The problem with "Pelham 123" isn't that what follows is some kind of tense cat and mouse game between negotiator and terrorist. The problem is that what follows is essentially 90 minutes of waiting. Ryder and Garber talk to each other essentially to pass the time, or to gruffly remind others that the deadline is nearing. When something does happen, it usually follows a pattern of Travolta getting upset and killing a hostage and Washington attempting to calm him down.

How does the film try to make up for the fact that it's script is essentially ten minutes of story padded out into nearly two hours? By allowing Tony Scott to amp up his already frantic music video style direction to ludicrous heights. Scenes that should never be shot and edited in such a manner are done so here. The grinding techno score moves at a quick pace. Every trick in the book to make the movie seem bigger and more exciting than it actually is comes to bear. "Pelham 123" wishes it was a fast-paced action movie, and by the time it actually becomes one late in the third act, it's far too late to save the film.

Washington puts in a decent enough performance with what limited material he has to work with. Travolta overacts like it's his business, shouting "motherfucker" to everyone like it's going out of style. The rest of the cast don't fare much better. John Turturro is bored in his role as a police hostage negotiator, James Gandolfini's mayor doesn't even get a NAME, and Luis Guzman is entirely wasted. A subplot with a webcam on the train does little to further the plot, and none of the hostages get any kind of development (even though we are openly asked to care when Travolta kills a couple of them).

If you've got a couple hours to spare, "The Taking of Pelham 123" probably isn't how you should spend them.