With Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 you get exactly what you might expect. It’s Denzel being all serious-like and Travolta being all over-the-top. And it’s the dizzying array of pointlessly manipulated shots—fast motion, slow motion, color shifts etc.—that Scott fobs off as style. The movie does exactly what the trailer promises. The film runs the gamut from being unintentionally amusing to boring in its utterly perfunctory approach. I preferred the movie when it was unintentionally amusing. But I could have lived without it in either capacity, and I’m already well on the way to forgetting about it altogether owing to its completely negligible nature.
The film is a remake of the 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Apparently, the movie needed remaking with Arabic numerals, which is probably as good a reason as any. I’m not one to decry remakes in general—they’ve always been with us, always will be, and they don’t prevent anyone from seeing the originals. But I don’t remember the 1974 film as particularly noteworthy. At the same time, I’m reasonably certain it wasn’t the overproduced mess Scott spews across the screen—and I know it didn’t require accepting the idea of Travolta as a badass. I mean suspension of disbelief only goes so far.
The premise is simplicity itself. A criminal mastermind calling himself Ryder (Travolta) and his gang capture a subway train filled with passengers and hold it hostage for $10 million, threatening to shoot a passenger a minute if the money isn’t delivered in a specified time. As luck would have it, a Manhattan Transit Authority bigwig, Walter Garber (Washington), under investigation for possibly accepting a bribe, just happens to be working dispatch at the time and is on the receiving end of Ryder’s demands. Perhaps because he recognizes Washington’s star power, Ryder refuses to deal with anyone but Garber, thereby ensuring Garber’s continued presence in the film.
What follows is only unpredictable by virtue of the snowballing silliness of the screenplay. In case you’re thinking that $10 million isn’t a very impressive figure in this day and age, the script explains the amount and assures us that there’s more here than meets the eye. When you learn what the more is, you may well question the manner in which the judicial system handles white-collar criminals, since it apparently causes them to develop Brooklyn accents, a taste for extravagant tattoos, a propensity for including some variation on the F-word in every sentence and terminal stupidity. Surely any such criminal worth the starch in his collar would remember that the thing worth doing is worth hiring someone else to do it.
The sad fact is that the more Pelham explains, the dumber the movie becomes, which would matter less if anything that happened was actually exciting. Unfortunately, that’s rarely true. Even big set pieces—like a runaway subway car—play out to no real point and no kind of climactic thrill. More astonishing still is Scott’s ability to make the film actually seem slower whenever it breaks free of its subway-tunnel setting, though this is probably attributable to the cliché-ridden nature of the action scenes. That the last parts of the movie seem to be doing little more than marking time to get to the ending doesn’t help—nor, for that matter, do the efforts of the cast, or all the considerable image manipulation Scott can pack into the proceedings. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.