The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
A real thriller, it has been a long time that I could say a movie had me on the edge of my seat. The Taking of Pelham 123 did just that and much more. It re-affirmed my belief in the acting abilities of Denzel Washington and John Travolta. I was truly impressed with the humanity that they brought to their characters and the chemistry between the two.
And how about that kick-ass makeup on old Johnny boy huh? Travolta looked every bit like a convict, I was amazed by it. Weathered face as if he has been through it a few times, prison tat, and the eyes, yes the “I don’t trust any one of you motherfuckers” eyes, what a movie! Director Tony Scott is new to me so when the film began with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems and the framing being similar to that of a comic book movie, I got a bit concerned. Action was contrasted against blurry backgrounds, the cast of characters were flashed frame by frame and it was all so strange to me I really did not know what to expect. Fortunately once Jay-Z finished, the imagery slowed down and we are introduced to Mr. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) and the beginning of what will be the longest day of his life.
Synopsis (Skip this paragraph if you hate spoilers)
Ryder (John Travolta) is a hardened criminal who has teamed up with some friends to hi-jack a train. His plans are to hold the people onboard hostage and demand a large sum of money from the city. To do this, he singles out a cab, detaches it from the rest and makes a phone call to the controllers in order to place his demands. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is the man who receives the call. Garber is a seasoned officer of the Subway system, recently demoted to being a comptroller. The two men engage in conversation that goes beyond hostage demands and into a form of familiarity and bonding that turns into a mental Chess match. This is because Ryder isn’t a dumb criminal, far from it, he is a brilliant man and this fact makes his demands even more dangerous. None of the police’s strategies in hostage negotiation, or tactics in special operations are above his methodology. When the heat gets turned up and three people are dead on the train, Ryder demands one last thing, he wants Garber to bring him the money personally. And this is just half of the movie.
The entire movie is a mental game, Ryder is beyond intelligent and Garber has a way with words. Their conversations were so well done I felt it could only be better if Travolta didn’t insist on saying motherfucker so many times. It just didn’t sound natural coming from him (he is no Samuel L.), he was seriously in character the entire time though and his little quips and racial epithets were enough to break your tension with a chuckle or two. Denzel Washington was outside of the “cool Denzel” we have seen so many times and was clumsy, overweight and seemed genuinely disturbed when talking to Ryder. There was one scene that stood out to me when he called his wife to coolly try and explain to her why he was in the middle of a hostage negotiation, bumbling his way through it but getting it done nonetheless.
The supporting cast was nothing to ignore either, with John Turturro playing Officer Camonetti, the hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini playing the nameless mayor. With this many Italian actors you would think that the pizza jokes would be spared but Travolta’s Ryder is apparently not a fan of Italians at all. Throwing around slurs and jokes at Camonetti any time the two were on the phone together. The cinematography was solid, music eery and fitting the situation and the plot easy to follow. The Direction was spot on and not once did I feel taken astray from the task at hand.
Listen, if you really, really like smart movies with a sprinkling of action thrown in (think Heat or The Departed) then you need to see The Taking of Pelham 123. It seems to be a growing trend these days to pair up large actors and it is a good one since if everything fails, you still get good character portraits. This movie delivered in suspense, good direction and most of all entertainment. Aside from Travolta’s dialogue throwing me off at times, it is damn near flawless in anything I can say about it. A very “human” movie, I recommend you go see it yourself, it will not disappoint.