Bad acting, ridiculous subplots, outlandish chase sequences—just another mindless Tony Scott product
Another big-budget Tony Scott action flick, another opportunity to slam his directorial flourishes: clumsy plots, spastic camera movements, and a nearly childish disregard for plausibility. And, boy oh boy, are all three on display in this adaptation of crime writer John Godey's 1973 novel about a subway car hijacking, which director Joseph Sargent and screenwriter Peter Stone winningly adapted in 1974. And, yes, Scott's Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an overblown, frenetically paced thriller that pushes the limits of belief's suspension. Like almost every single one of Scott's movies since 1998's Enemy of the State, though, Pelham's inevitable critical drubbing probably won't stop it from making pretty good money.
That streak is rather impressive. Since State, Scott has dedicated himself to steroidal action movies. Gone is the rampant misogyny of his speak-snarky-and-carry-a-big-gun flicks (see: The Last Boy Scout, in many ways his best movie because it's so absurd), replaced with excessive testosterone, a recipe he discovered with Crimson Tide. And because not every movie can take place aboard an almost female-free submarine, women in Scott's movie are now barely flat-character love interests, mere plot points that compel guys to act. (Remember: Scott's lone flop since State was the one with a female lead, 2005's Domino.) And, ideally, these guys act with a small arsenal of cutting-edge techno gadgetry.
Excess is the operative word in Scott's cinematic world, and he and screenwriter Brian Hegeland take the streamlined simplicity of Godey's novel and the 1974 movie and add so much extraneous material—pointless plot tics, character backstories, action set pieces, unnecessary cell phone conversations, even a deus ex rodentia sniper shooting-that it's hard to believe that the central story remains unchanged. It's in there, though, as Ryder (John Travolta in his Pomeranian-on-crank overacting mode to convey criminal lunacy; see also: Swordfish, The Punisher) and his partners—Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman), Bashkim (Victor Gojcaj), and Emri (Robert Vataj)—board a New York subway 6 train, take over the first car, stop it in a midtown tunnel, disconnect it from the rest of the train, and send the rest of the passengers packing. The remaining 19 people, including the motorman, are held for ransom: Ryder informs transit dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) that the city of New York has exactly one hour to get him $10 million or he starts shooting hostages, one for every minute past deadline.
It's the same scheme as the original, only instead of the suave Robert Shaw talking to the ornery Walter Matthau, Travolta's excitably extemporaneous Ryder matches wits with Washington's working man just trying to do his job. And once the supporting players come into play—Gerber's ball-busting boss (Michael Rispoli), NYPD negotiator Camonetti (a sleepwalking John Turturro), the mayor (James Gandolfini dressing like Bloomberg, trying to be populist like La Gaurdia, and carrying on affairs like Giuliani), and deputy mayor (John Benjamin Hickey, who, sadly, doesn't get to unload with Tony Roberts' original Pelham deputy mayor zinger: "We're trying to run a city, not a goddamed democracy")—Scott's Pelham more or less plays out as a race against the clock, only cluttered with all that aforementioned claptrap.
Both Garber and Ryder are given questionable backgrounds, with Ryder's possible financial-scandal past introducing a pointless subplot about the hijacking causing a terrorist rumor that affects the stock market. It's part of Ryder's play, requiring the hijackers to get wifi access in the tunnel (no, really). It's Scott's lone instance of technoporn here, unless you also count the flashy aerial photography that captures some rather arresting views of Manhattan and the overhead whip pans that appear to speed a camera from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn, as if Scott scouted locations using Google maps.
The whole movie, though, rides on the lopsided rails of the Garber-Ryder relationship: Travolta just doesn't have the chops to match Washington, which zaps all the tension from the screen. Garber isn't a stretch for Washington, though for once Scott doesn't make him do the usual spiel. Surprisingly, Washington has now been in as many Scott movies (Pelham, Déjà Vu, Man on Fire, Crimson Tide) as he has Spike Lee movies (Inside Man, Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game). Lee's movies push Washington to do his best work—such as his slept-on turn in Game and his Malcolm X, still one of the towering performances of the '90s. Scott merely uses Washington for his ability to combine intelligence with physical prowess, creating thinking badasses. Garber is a reluctant badass, but even he eventually finds the proverbial stones to pull the trigger when the time comes.
Travolta, well, he's only tolerable when he plays adult variations on Danny Zuko/Tony Manero—modestly endearing streetwise guys with a good sense of humor (see: Chili Palmer). Otherwise, he's just an obnoxious mess grasping for anything that might resemble a human emotion. Ryder spits his words and gets all crazy-eyed and, in general, acts the criminal fool, and you never for a moment believe this guy could mastermind his way around a urinal. Just add Ryder to Travolta's growing list of misfires, which includes such floaters as Wild Hogs and Battlefield Earth. Perhaps its time to rethink your approach when that time you donned a fat suit, muumuu-like housedress, and atrocious Bawlmer accent captured you acting your most subdued.