Film Review: The Taking of Pelham 123 (Spoilers)

John Travolta does the crazy thing. It worked for him in Face/Off, it worked for him in Pulp Fiction, it works for him here. The problem is that this Tony Scott-directed remake of the 1974 original sacrifices everything to the altar of Travolta – character development, believable (or at least consistent) plot, you name it it’s removed for the maestro of the über-camp, villainous turn. It’s not Travolta’s fault really – it’s the normal problem affecting all Tony Scott films – it’s style over substance every time. There’s a simple and effective heist movie to be told here, but it only lasts for about half an hour, with some bland, meaningless padding to fill the rest of the 100 or so minutes out. How Scott manages to make Denzel Washington of all actors uninteresting is beyond me, but his Walter Garber is just that – uninteresting. You aren’t ever given reasons to care about what happens to him (nor Travolta for that matter, nor his hostages but I’ll get to that), and it undermines the whole film. The initial premise of ordinary joe train dispatcher Washington getting caught up in a hostage situation he doesn’t understand or feel he can rise to has chilling echoes of the phone recordings on 9/11 – and this is all set in New York too. But we have stories of redemption, character flaws which make no sense, a whole lot of junk which is occasionally laughable, and it all muddies the waters. Let me explain.

Washington is a train dispatcher whose otherwise seemingly ordinary day is totalled by train hijacker Travolta and his gang. They want $10 million or they’ll start shooting their hostages. So far so good, but rather than developing an effective bond between his two leads, Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland find ways to dumb the film down – Travolta may have a master plan but he’s also crazy as a loon; Washington too has a dark secret which he’s forced by Travolta to reveal. Their odd bond draws in FBI negotiator John Turturro (is he playing comedy or is he serious?) and Mayor James Gandolfini, but nothing makes sense. Washington’s revealed secret has the opposite effect on Turturro to what logic would dictate, Travolta nearly gets away with his master plan but lets Washington (a train dispatcher) kill him out of an untelligible sense of honour and hey just how underdeveloped are the hostages as supporting characters? One provides a huge (and annoying) deus ex machina, another is supposed to be important but turns out to be expendable – why their involvement couldn’t even be amusing is beyond me (note: the pissing sequence is not funny). It’s frustrating then that such a badly made film, which makes all the easiest, most intelligence-insulting, patronising choices available, should then be so entertaining. But Scott knows how to do dumb but entertaining with his eyes closed (‘Top Gun’ anyone?), and despite yourself you partially forgive him his incredible laziness. Sure most of the fun is down to Travolta’s ridiculous excesses, but the film has a very light touch indeed – I sure didn’t leave feeling cheated.

So only go on a Friday night, a Sunday afternoon or any other time you’re not feeling that demanding; there’s a market for films like this. You’ll probably catch all the missed opportunities I’ve identified and more, but at the same time you’ll have had a good burst of adrenaline and an unexpected laugh. 6.5/10

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