'Pelham,' take three

An action film centered around a conversation, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 explores the intricacies of human connections and the development of relationships via the unlikely venue of a fast-paced hijack flick. But don’t worry — there are guns, too.

Pelham, based on the novel by Morton Freedgood (aka John Godey), immediately jumps into the action with the hijacking of a subway car by an enigmatic individual known only as Ryder (Travolta). A man with his own mysterious past, Walter Garber (Washington) happens to be the subway-car dispatcher who initially speaks with Ryder, placing Garber in the middle of the crisis since Ryder subsequently refuses to speak with anyone else.

Since the majority of the film focuses on the relationship between Ryder and Garber, Pelham leans heavily on Travolta and Washington. The two have an unlikely screen chemistry, and throughout the course of the film, Travolta flaunts his dark side, while Washington shows a little depth as his character, Garber, is forced to admit and come to terms with past failures. Washington mainly plays Garber as a simple, good-hearted man, though, so Travolta’s is definitely the more interesting character — an emotional sphinx whose true motivation is never fully understood. Even though these two characters are strikingly different, an intriguing, complex bond forms between the “hero” and the “bad guy.”

Since this story has already been put on the screen twice before, director Tony Scott ran a high risk of redundancy in both plot and narrative, but he generally succeeds at avoiding it. Due to the film’s dialogue-heavy script, Scott tries to keep suspense high and creates the illusion of high-velocity action throughout the film using handheld cameras. Quick cuts between scenes and jerky panoramic shots of New York City pointedly emphasize the urgency of the situation. Although some have criticized Scott for overusing this trick, the spasmodic and fitful approach syncs effectively with the plotline and film style. Without it, the tension would be muted.

Considering Pelham is an R-rated action film, a certain amount of blood and gore is anticipated, but the few brutal scenes are overdone. At one point in the film, two criminals are pumped full of bullets by a massive crowd of police officers for no apparent reason, yet the shooting continues for several minutes while gallons of blood splatter in slow motion.

If you can stomach the few scenes of gratuitous violence, Pelham delivers generally what one would expect from a big summer action movie — not too much thinking, plenty of jump cuts and cussing, etc. — and it even ups the ante with some extra character development. It’s not much of a first-date movie, but it’s a better-than-average way to kill a Friday night.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Dir. Tony Scott; writ. Brian Helgeland; feat. Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Brian Haley (R)

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