The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
You Thought the Days of Train Robberies Were Over
Starring: John Travolta, Denzel Washington
By Tom Bevis
There is no doubting we’re in the age or remakes. All too often, the remakes result in bland and pale imitations of the originals. But sometimes, ever so rarely, a remake comes out to astound, to adapt perfectly to the times and stand alone as its own piece of work. The Taking of Pelham 123 is definitely the latter.
I have to admit that I was skeptical, as I’m sure you are. Given the bad press surrounding John Travolta, both recent and old, who is going to expect anything of quality from him? And what can we say about Denzel Washington, the Great Overactor? Well, understand now that these two men leave behind any semblance of themselves and their typical stage personas and pull perfectly into their roles.
John Travolta plays the leader of a criminal crew who hijack a subway full of hostages who insists on negotiating only with the subway dispatcher, played Denzel Washington. Each of them have their own secrets and passions, and most of the film’s charm is trying to figure them out. The story is top-notch. There is never a slow moment, the narrative speeds along from the very beginning (insert lame runaway-train joke here).
Aiding in the film’s fast-pace story is immaculate editing. At the face, it seems gimmicky, like something from an 80’s action-comedy (director Tony Scott knows exactly what I’m talking about), but it quickly becomes characteristic of the film, helping to keep the intensity and speed of the story as the scenes break and switch among each other. In short, the fast editing and quick cuts become a catalyst for momentum.
Truly, the film has a cast perfectly suited from comedy. Not only the Washington / Travolta team-up (imaging the slapstick possibilities!) but take a look at the roster: Luis Guzman? John Turturro? And James Gandolfini plays the mayor of New York. Tell me, could you imagine Tony Soprano in charge of the Big Apple? That’s a comedy I’d gladly shovel out ten dollars to see.
But, despite all the skepticism and dull expectations, each and every one of them come out to shine. They don’t merely read the script, but they act it, they work it, they bring it alive. I’m not being sentimental, either. The film is centered almost entirely on conversation and dialog, and it takes a lot to make such a thing work, and everyone performs their duties admirably. Similarly, it takes a lot to build a relationship on screen when sharing very little time together at all. Washington and Travolta spend more than half of the film communicating via radio, but the electricity of their relationship is unmistakable. The tension is so thick it could stop a speeding train in mid-burst (oh, there’s that train joke).
And that relationship builds the heart of the film: a complex relationship that weaves in and out of focus, crafting tension and suspense. The film’s best quality is the likability not only of Washington, the obvious good guy, but Travolta as well, who seems to fluctuate from cynically playful to maliciously clever. It’s not as endearing as Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector, but it’s the same idea: the bad guy that’s so understandable and convincing that we can’t help but not like him