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Review: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) 

Directed by: Tony Scott

Premise: A remake of the 1974 film. A New York subway dispatcher (Denzel Washington) becomes a hostage negotiator when a group of armed criminals take over a city train and demand a ransom.

What Works: The Taking of Pelham 123 features the kind of slick editing that has become Tony Scott’s trademark style. The film moves quite smoothly around various locations and as the hostage crisis begins, Scott maintains the tension through the first two acts of the story, making up for convention with style. Whatever his other faults, Scott should be praised as a very efficient filmmaker.

What Doesn’t: The Taking of Pelham 123 is hampered by playing things much too safe. There are lots of good actors here but none of them are able to do anything with their parts. Washington plays the likable everyman and although the film gives him a touch of human flaws, it does not go far enough, keeping the character too safe. By contrast, John Travolta stomps and sneers his way through the role as the lead villain but he does not break out of the familiar mold of villains of this genre and he never comes into direct conflict with Washington’s character. James Gandolfini’s role as the mayor of New York is given a slight reprieve, as the film avoids the usual clichés of the corrupt politician, but in place of that he’s not given much else to do. This is not type casting but it is predictable casting and the story and its characters are played too safe and are stuck inside of thriller clichés. This becomes very apparent in the third act of the story, as The Taking of Pelham 123 loses a lot of steam as it enters the climax. The film resolves the hostage crisis in spite of the conflict between Washington and Travolta’s characters instead of through it, removing what was most at stake and undermining the dramatic urgency of the story.

Bottom Line: The Taking of Pelham 123 is an underwhelming film. Nothing in it is all that bad, but despite setting up a plausibly interesting situation the film can’t deliver in the climax.

Episode: #244 (June 28, 2009)