Thursday, June 11, 2009
Review: "Pelham 1 2 3"
The remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" manages a curious thing: A hostage standoff in which the audiences identifies with both the criminal and the representative of order whose job it is to take him down.
John Travolta plays the subway terrorist, who icily executes hostages while spewing some wild babble about getting revenge on the city of New York. Decked out in a handlebar mustache and neck tattoo, Travolta de-glams with a vengeance for this role, even eschewing the hair pieces he's been wearing in recent years for a thin patch of scruff.
And yet, there's something about the dude, who calls himself Ryder, that makes you want him to succeed -- or at least keep his game going a little longer. Perhaps it's his don't-give-a-flip puckishness, and his stated ambivalence about whether he lives or dies. Yes, he's doing this to get rich, demanding $10 million in one hour before he starts killing innocents.
But Travolta's impish performance stresses Ryder's perverse sense of pride. He feels like he was persecuted for the sort of corruption that is a matter of course in the city's corridors of power, and before his own wick burns out he wants New York's lords of power to know he knows they're all the same.
Denzel Washington plays Garber, a dispatcher for the city's rail department. In the 1974 original, Garber, played by Walter Matthau, was a transit cop who had to negotiate the byzantine bureaucracy of municipal government to prevent people from dying. Here Garber is a nondescript worker drone, who gets tangled in the mess only because he's the one who answers the radio when Ryder calls in with his demands.
Garber is immediately likeable. He's highly competant at his job, unlike the political flunky who runs the dispatch headquarters. And when Ryder offers to let all the hostages go in exchange for the mayor (played by James Gandolfini), it's Garber who ends up putting his own neck on the line. That earns the respect of Ryder, who calls him "the last friend I'll ever make."
Most of the movie is a verbal game of cat and mouse as Garber keeps talking to Ryder, while navigating the increasingly deep political web in which he gets tangled. At one point, we learn some information about Garber that would cause us to lose respect for him. But the way in which this tidbit is drawn out only makes us root more for him.
There's a great scene where they're trying to rush the $10 million to the subway before the deadline, and there's some intense cross-cutting of Ryder issuing threats over the radio with the police car carrying the money careening through city traffic, getting into increasingly serious mishaps along the way. Suddenly the mayor turns to his aide: "Why didn't we put the money in a helicopter?" It's the sort of thing smarter audiences demand of dramatic thrillers, so we feel good that someone onscreen saw fit to ask the question -- even though it is never adequately answered.
"Pelham" was directed by Tony Scott from a script by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River"), and manages to be a better-than-average potboiler, while offering a tantalizing first-time pairing of two veteran actors. Travolta and Washington skillfully play off each other, even though we don't see them together till near the end. The wait, and the ride, is worth it.