Movies & TV / Reviews

The Taking of Pelham 123 Review

June 13, 2009 | Posted by Shawn S. Lealos
The 411 Rating
Community Grade
Your Grade
The Taking of Pelham 123 Review  

Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Brian Helgeland

Denzel Washington … Walter Garber
John Travolta … Ryder
Luis Guzman … Phil Ramos
Victor Gojcaj … Bashkim
John Turturro … Camonetti
James Gandolfini … Mayor

Rated R for violence and pervasive language.

Tony Scott used to be a good director. Hell, some of his movies have bordered on brilliance. He directed one of my favorite movies of all time in True Romance and one of my guilty pleasures in The Last Boy Scout. The guy had talent and at times rivaled his even more talented brother, Ridley Scott.

With his latest movie, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, Tony Scott fails miserably. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire) seemingly wrote this cookie cutter script using every cliché in the thriller movie guide book, all the way down to the ticking clock. There is no reason this movie should have failed with the subject matter. I expected a heart thumping, tension filled movie, especially considering the leads.

John Travolta plays Ryder, the leader of a group of men who takes a subway train, the Pelham 123, hostage. They release half the train and let it roll backwards down the track, freeing most of the hostages at the start. I assume this is so there is less chance of the “hero factor.” They then gun down the only cop onboard and make the call to the control station with their demands with 18 hostages remaining.

Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, the controller who takes the call. He may or may not have taken a $35,000 bribe and faces federal charges if convicted. Until the investigation is complete, he has been demoted and happens to be the poor schmuck on the job when Ryder calls through. Ryder will, from this point on, only speak to Garber and threatens to kill a passenger if he leaves his post.

Washington is excellent in his role as Garber, putting on a few pounds, letting his hair thin out and allowing his goatee to show the grey. Travolta, on the other hand, is out of control in his role as the bad guy. I love an over-the-top John Travolta but in this case, he goes over-the-top, circles around, and does a few more laps. The first time he spouts the explicative “mother fucker” I smiled. When it became part of his regular speech and he drifted in and out of tantrums, it became too much. I even liked John Travolta in Swordfish. Here, I grew tired of him very quickly.

Maybe that is Travolta’s fault but part of it also lands squarely on the shoulders of director Tony Scott. By the time Ryder makes his first demands five minutes into the movie, I was already sick of watching it. Basically, after the opening credit sequence, I wanted to leave. Imagine the camera work of Domino and make it even more nauseating. Add in even more strange out of focus shots using distorted speeds and colors and you are almost there. It seems like Tony Scott is seeing how far he can push his audience before they give up on him. By the end of the opening credits I was annoyed, making everything after even worse.

I am tempted to believe that Scott read the script and realized that, with the exception of a few cut scenes here and there, the movie was about two guys talking over a radio. I would guess he then looked at the movie and believed no one would care about two guys talking so he made the camera swish and zoom and whip all over the place to make it all seem cool. The best parts of the movie are when he lets the camera rest in one place and allows his characters to move the scene on their own. That rarely happens.

Other than Denzel, the two standout characters are John Turturro as the hostage negotiator left standing in the background watching everything unfold and James Gandolfini as the mayor of New York City. While Turturro does everything possible to make his character interesting, the script has him look like an idiot never having negotiated anything in his life. He says he has been involved in great negotiations before but you can’t tell by the way he is written. On the other hand, the mayor is a perfect character and delivers some much needed humor to the proceedings. Between his oft mentioned marital infidelities and his strong desire to not be mayor anymore, he is the only high point in the movie.

This script is shallow and paints every character as a one dimensional stereotype. Only the mayor comes across as a real person. Denzel does the best he can with his character but all his development is done during the conversations with Ryder. When Garber makes his big leap at the end, heroically trying to atone for his past sins, you don’t believe it for a minute. Hell, the only reason you know he is atoning for anything is because Ryder says so about fifteen minutes before it happens. The script is written so even the most dimwitted audience member will understand what is happening.

I really wanted to like this movie. If you read my reviews on a regular basis, you know I find many things in even bad movies to enjoy. I can usually find flowers in the biggest piles of crap. In this movie, I enjoyed James Gandolfini. That’s it. Denzel gave it his best shot but couldn’t overcome the cookie cutter script. Travolta disappointed the hell out of me with his wildly unrealistic performance. Worst of all, Tony Scott shot the movie like an epileptic having a seizure. He didn’t trust the script enough to let it play out with any kind of coherence and made even the action sequences, which he is usually good at, look like a dizzying convoluted mess.

By the end of the film, when one character gives another a big goofy smile and a thumbs up I was disgusted. The final shot, a freaking freeze frame on a close up of the hero’s face, made me wonder if this is supposed to be a joke. It’s time to question whether Tony Scott has it anymore.

The 411The Taking of Pelham 123 is an action movie that fails in every aspect of the game. It is burdened with horrible camerawork by a director who can’t seem to let the script tell the story. He never knows where to put the camera and throws everything at you including the kitchen sink. Good acting by John Turturro and Denzel Washington are hampered by a weak script that paints both men with the widest brush strokes possible. John Travolta goes so far over-the-top, his character never once feels honest. The only redeeming factor is James Gandolfini, who is purely comic relief. In a summer where quite a few movies have been considered a disappointment, The Taking of Pelham 123 is the worst of them all.
Final Score:  3.5   [ Bad ]  legend

article topics

Shawn S. Lealos

Comments are closed.