June 11, 2009

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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (R)
Denzel Washington puts his cool up against John Travolta’s crazy in this tale of a subway train dispatcher stuck talking down a hijacker in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a giddy heist movie.

Walter Garber (Washington) is in the middle of some kind of disciplinary situation that has, after a long career with the transit authority, put him back on dispatcher duty for New York City’s subway trains. In the middle of such a day, he sees on the massive screen in front of him that one of his trains, Pelham 1 2 3, has stopped even though it has a clear track in front of it. What’s going on, Pelham 1 2 3, he asks.

What’s going on is that a man calling himself only Ryder (Travolta) and an assorted band of thugs have taken over the train. What’s the going price for a New York City hostage, Ryder asks Walter when he finally answers the dispatcher’s radio calls. Ryder figures that $10 million should cover the 18-some people he’s holding and tells Walter that he has one hour to convince the mayor to fork over the cash.

The mayor (James Gandolfini) would gladly write the man a personal check if only to have one less thing to worry about. He’s a Bloomberg-ish independently wealthy final-termer who is eager, as he tells his staff, to not be mayor anymore if for no other reason than he doesn’t have to pretend to enjoy riding the subway. He authorizes at least making a show of getting the cash to the hijackers to give the police time to rescue the hostages and capture the kidnappers.

Meanwhile, back at dispatch, the NYPD shows up with its hostage negotiations team. Lieutenant Camonetti (John Turturro) takes over the microphone from Walter — but not for long. Seems Ryder’s become fond of Walter and is able to convince the authorities, via gun, to put Walter back on the line.

OK, so this isn’t breaking new ground for Washington. He’s played versions of this character before — most similarly in Inside Man where he’s trying to figure out what’s going on inside a bank where people are being held hostage. But he does this sort of thing well. He mixes evenness, vulnerability, steeliness and a small bit of that Training Day ability to go all badass to create characters that even if they’re not terribly original are a lot of fun to watch.

Travolta’s villains aren’t quite such skilled solo performances — they’re more like B-movie hysteria-fueled orchestral movements. His villains are flamboyant, operatic nut-cases. But Travolta’s “go BIGGER” bad guy is a good match for Washington’s “I’m chill” everyman.

The other main character here is New York City, which has the memories and attitude of the post-9/11 New York but has some of the grit of 1970s New York, perhaps a function of this movie’s having been updated from a 1974 version. When New York needs to speak, it does so out of the mouth of Gandolfini, who is a delightfully sarcastic about everything.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has a fun little twist (as all good heist movies need to), a corker of a car crash and a trio of players in Gandolfini, Turturro and Washington who ooze genuineness even when they’re in absurdly contrived situations. It isn’t a dew-kissed daisy of innovation but it’s fun to watch and keeps you, if not guessing, then at least not bored with having figured out its every move. Looking for an alternative to summer spectaculars that still offers escapist fun? This is your train. B

Rated R for violence and pervasive language. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Brian Helgland (from the novel by John Godey), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an hour and 35 minutes long and opens in wide release on Friday, June 12. It is distributed by Sony Pictures.