I have a problem with [movie id="367658"]“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”[/movie] It’s the premise: Four bad guys descend into the New York City subway system, hijack a train, hold the passengers hostage and demand that the city bring a $10 million ransom down to the tunnel where the de-coupled train’s engine car is now parked. The problem, as I see it, is that there is no way these guys are going to get out of that tunnel and then out of the teeming metropolis above, where a legion of cops is waiting for them to come staggering up with their cash-stuffed duffle bags and attempt to hail a rush-hour taxi.
“Pelham” is director Tony Scott’s steroidal remake of a well-regarded 1974 action flick, with a number of flamboyantly brainless new flourishes nailed on. [movieperson id="63075"]John Travolta[/movieperson] plays Ryder, the head hijacker, fitted out with bandido mustache, diamond earring, a great big neck tattoo and, as we see in close-ups, a pricey Breitling wristwatch that must have helped ease the film’s budget a bit. Ryder is a testy guy; we know this by the teeth-gnashing rants into which he constantly erupts (summoning fond memories of the immortal “Battlefield Earth”). He’s on the phone with Walter Garber, a Metropolitan Transit Authority controller played by [movieperson id="65823"]Denzel Washington[/movieperson] with a paunch and a pair of mild-mannered glasses. Walter’s actually a transit executive, but he’s been demoted to control-room duty pending the results of a corruption investigation. (He allegedly took a bribe from a train manufacturer. In Japan. It’s complicated, and highly irrelevant.)
Ryder takes a liking to Garber, and keeps him on the line. He wants the ransom money delivered in one hour or people will start dying. James Gandolfini, as the mayor of New York, breezes into the picture to contemplate this demand and quickly go along with it. John Turturro arrives on the scene as an MTA hostage negotiator (?) named Camonetti. He’s trying to figure out who this Ryder guy is. And when the gabby Ryder tells Garber a boldly ridiculous story about how he once picked up an “ass model” at a party and took her to Iceland, Camonetti suddenly knows — Ryder could only be a Wall Street stock wizard.
Our heads are already spinning as Scott cuts away to the sort of heavy-metal destruction he so famously favors. A police convoy is attempting to get the bags of cash to the scene, but is having a helluva time: The cops keep crashing into taxis and spinning off of highway overpasses down onto packed expressways, providing massive doses of Scottian boom-and-blaze, all of it egged on by an over-the-top soundtrack roar. (When Gandolfini says, “Why didn’t we send a helicopter for the money?” he pries the words right out of our mouths.)
Our heads are now in our laps as we learn why Ryder has mounted this caper. It turns out he doesn’t actually need the money — he still has a couple million dollars left over from an earlier stock swindle that sent him to prison. So why does he now feel he needs several million dollars more? You won’t believe it. (No, really, you won’t believe it.) As for Ryder’s escape plan, it involves a secret subway platform under a well-known building, and is of course completely ridiculous.
The movie wastes some good actors — chiefly Luis Guzmán, who gets minimal screen time as Travolta’s chief henchman, an embittered ex-subway employee — and all but ignores a number of characters (Ryder’s other two associates, both hulking brutes, are on hand mainly to scowl and bleed). There’s plenty of action, conveyed in Scott’s trademark jerky-cam swirl-and-blur style, but little to get excited about. You wonder why the picture was made (or, again, re-made). At one of the film’s many peerlessly silly points, Travolta tells Washington, “We all owe God a death.” This movie is a prime candidate.
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