Fast-paced 'Pelham' is worth a viewing

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

It's no secret that "The Taking of Pelham 123" is about a bad guy (John Travolta) hijacking a subway car in New York City. The previews also make it abundantly clear that much of what you will see in "Pelham" is Travolta playing opposite the good guy (Denzel Washington), even though the two men are in remote locations - Travolta in the subway, Washington in the control center.

Knowing that was the case going in, the worry for me was that the movie would fail to be interesting for very long with a seemingly predictable chain of events. We know Travolta (Ryder) will have some sort of plan to escape the subway car; we know Washington's average Joe (Walter Garber) will be forced into action in order to stop Ryder from escaping. The only question in my mind was whether or not director Tony Scott could make getting from A to B interesting.

Now, I have not read John Godey's novel, nor have I seen the original movie (made in 1973 with Walther Matthau as Garber). I'm consequently hesitant to heap too much praise onto writer Brian Helgeland since he clearly had a pretty good starting canvas. However, this version of "Pelham" is interesting, fast-paced, suspenseful and the characters are worth getting to know. Those things are a testament to Helgeland's writing.

When Ryder shoots the first hostage early on without any hesitation, we understand he can't make it. That's the rule in movies. Ryder, though, remains intriguing because we don't know what made him so jaded. So as he toys with Garber over the microphone, revealing only bits and pieces of who he really is, it's downright captivating trying to figure it out along with Garber.

Garber, meanwhile, is not your cookie-cutter variety of hero. He's not, as he tells Ryder at one point, a hostage negotiator. He works for the New York City Transit Authority; he's just a guy. He's not a white knight, though, as we and some of his co-workers believe. So when Ryder forces him to come clean, over the microphone and in front of everybody, it presents a real dilemma for us. Do we continue to root unconditionally for Garber after we find out he is not pure as snow?

I found myself cracking a half-smile in the audience picturing Tony Scott on set when they filmed that sequence. He must have known it would create a wonderful tension in theaters. Washington and Travolta play it perfectly, and the result is the air being sucked right out of the room.

Still, I imagine most will quickly forgive Garber (as I did); after all, he is definitely pure as snow when compared to the calculating Ryder down in the subway.

Just to make sure you do forgive Garber, Scott throws about two minutes of calm into the middle of the chaos. The soundtrack changes, just for a moment, as Garber is being ushered to a helicopter to take the ransom money down into the tunnel. He talks on his cell phone with his wife (Aunjanue Ellis); she's understandably freaked out, but tells him to do what he has to do and get a gallon of milk on his way home. If the scene had lasted another ten seconds, tears were on the way.

At that point though, we're on our way to the inevitable Washington/Travolta showdown. You know it is coming from the opening frame. Yet, when it gets there on screen, it seems new and exciting. You want to see how it plays out.

That's exactly what I was hoping for.

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