The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) Review


Tony Scott is no Scorsese. It’s not like I expected “The Taking of Pelham 123” to be a masterpiece. However, I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect this film to be an entertaining and somewhat thrilling diversion. Scott’s “Déjà Vu,” which also starred Denzel Washington, was just that. But “Pelham” isn’t thrilling, and it isn’t entertaining. It’s uninspired, unoriginal, and dull.

Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is your cliched ordinary man turned hero. He’s an MTA worker who has recently been demoted from supervisor to radio operator for allegedly accepting a bribe on the job. Walter notices an irregularity with the Pelham 123 train (named as such for the exact time it passes the Pelham station). When he calls the subway, he is met with the voice of Ryder (John Travolta), a terrorist with vengeance on his mind. Ryder has taken a number of hostages and wants $10 million within the hour, or else he will start taking lives. Walter tries to keep Ryder calm, and the two form a strange bond over the radio. When a hostage negotiator comes in to take over, Ryder demands Walter come back. The two engage in a battle of the wits. And as the deadline approaches, Ryder forces Walter to put his life in danger in the name of his city.

The problem with “Pelham” is that there is nothing inspired about it. It’s a remake of a 1974 feature starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, but the finished product is so ordinary, there’s no conceivable reason why this was made. There’s potential for an exciting battle of wits between Garber and Ryder. But Scott elects to go in the direction of inane action sequences.

There are two chase scenes, and it’s difficult to decide which one is more generic. The first is a race by the police to get Ryder’s money to him before his deadline passes. It takes place about thirty minutes into the film, so there’s no doubting whether or not they will make it in time. Yet, Scott still elects to crash cars into each other and countdown until the last second. It’s not suspenseful, and its inclusion is frustrating and unnecessary. The second car chase takes place at the end, when I suppose there is some question regarding the story’s conclusion. But there’s nothing at all remarkable about it. Like its predecessor, it fails to generate even the slightest bit of tension. “Déjà Vu” had a car chase which I found fascinating in which Washington’s character drove with one in back in time and the other eye in the present (he had to dodge two different sets of traffic). Sure, it sounds silly, but it was inventive. The scenes in “Pelham” are as run-of-the-mill as they get.

The acting is unremarkable, but at least it isn’t so bad that it renders “Pelham” unwatchable. Washington plays the everyman role quite well. His performance isn’t especially memorable, but he does what’s expected of him. John Travolta doesn’t fare quite as well. Ryder isn’t a very menacing villain. He’s charismatic, but whenever he gets angry, Travolta struggles.

I guess the most disappointing thing about “Pelham” is that everyone in this film is capable of much better. Scott has crafted much better and much more thrilling films in the past. Washington and Travolta are good actors, but their performances here are just ordinary. Those three names are really the only conceivable reasons to see “Pelham,” but unless you are a real die-hard fan of one of the three, I would recommend you skip this one.

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