Monday, June 15, 2009

Monday Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) 8/10
A group of hijackers led by Ryder (John Travolta), take a subway car hostage and demand ten million dollars for their release. On the other side of the microphone is transit dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), struggling to keep the situation from becoming deadly. Directed by Tony Scott.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens like a fast shot of whiskey, all quick cutting and smart story-telling and brutal music. The situation is introduced with economy and enthusiasm; HERE is the MTA and HERE is the subway being boarded and HERE are the hijackers.

In general, the pace remains excellent, moving briskly, telling the story clearly, letting us breathe and laugh when we need to, but then pushing us right back under water. Pelham 1 2 3 shares with the original movie a gritty, unadorned feel for New York City, and a cast of real characters without any prettiness or Botox in sight. The on-location feel isn't a gratuitous show of cleverness, it's fully integrated into the film. This story needs these streets; it is particular and specific about subways, motormen, old tunnels, new technology, and rats.

The story takes us a little into Garber's life, a little into meeting the mayor (James Gandolfini, reminding me why I love him), and a lot into Ryder, who is angry, maybe crazy, and definitely dangerous. Ryder is the real thing: A bad guy all the way. Not for one moment is the audience led to sympathize with him or believe that he is cool. As he says so very often in the R-rated film, he is a motherfucker. And I appreciate the actors and script and director for keeping him bad, because I don't think the alternative is "misunderstood," in general, the alternative tends to be "cool" or "gangsta." And really, this crime is just too nasty to be treated like outlaw chic.

Tony Scott is a journeyman director; he does good work and is not in the business of making masterpieces. Like every movie of his that I've seen, this one is flawed. There are moments that are too corny, close-ups that over-emphasize points that could have been delicately revealed, and an overall heavy-handedness. But I am quibbling. Pelham 1 2 3 works, it is exactly what it's meant to be: A thrill-ride crime story that races like an out-of-control subway.

The acting is, well hello, did you see the cast? There was a small moment when I realized how good Travolta was, and a funny moment when I realized how deft Gandolfini was, and then I realized I never had a thought like that about Denzel, because Denzel is so good, you never see him acting. Not for one moment. And by the way, John Turturro and Luis Guzmán are in this movie too, and when those guys are "by the way," well, that's quite a cast. Did I mention any women? No. That's because there aren't any. Some hostages, a conductor who leaves early on, Garber's wife for the duration of a phone call, I think a cop ina background shot, and that's it. I really enjoyed this movie, but I am sick of that shit.

(The Making of Cross-post 1 2 3)