When he takes his seat at his desk, business is rolling smoothly as usual. As an MTA dispatcher, it is his job to know every inch of every track in New York City. This skill will prove quite useful when Mr. Ryder (John Travolta) and his band of ethnic nondescript terrorist-types slickly hijack and therefore “take” subway train Pelham 123. The train is in Garber’s area, so he gets the radio call, but instead of the motorman calling, it’s Ryder, and he wants to chat. His topics of conversation: the weather, sports, the Catholic religion, and sticking it to The Man, but mostly the conversation’s about getting Ryder $10,000,000 in 60 minutes. Otherwise, he’ll start killing his 17 hostages one by one. Good thing Walter didn’t call in sick today, because he might be the only one who can talk Ryder down. Does Ryder know more about Walter than he’s advertising? Is Walter hiding a secret? Is it fate or coincidence that Walter gets the call? Is Ryder not as bad as we think? All questions will be asked and conveniently (and expensively) answered by the end of Tony Scott’s super-flashy remake of Joseph Sargent’s “The Taking of Pelham 123”.
This is Denzel’s 4th collaboration with director Tony Scott, continuing a relationship that dates back to 1995’s submarine classic Crimson Tide. These two obviously like working together and it shows on screen. Denzel looks comfortable, commanding, and believable as an MTA dispatcher with a haunted past. On the other end of the radio mike is Mr. John Travolta, who really crackles as enigmatic thief Ryder. He’s a fun character to watch, and easily has all of the best lines. Travolta plays Ryder as Vincent Vega’s uptight, meth-addicted cousin, and provides an endless supply of energy that keeps the story interesting. The plot hinges on multiple radio conversations between Garber and Ryder, and both actors work their sides like old pros. These guys could play these characters in their sleep, but their chemistry is the brightest spot in the film. Look out for Luis Guzman of Boogie Nights popping up as Travolta’s “inside man.” Pun intended.
Just like the actors, director Tony Scott is perfectly at home here—he could direct this in his sleep. It has every trademark overdirection that Scott is known for: constant camera swivels, millisecond shots, music-video editing, choppy aerial shots, and a rockin’ techno-serious music score from Harry Gregson-Williams. It’s a fun, solid film that delivers on everything its trailer promises. This is a heist film, so the “who,” the “what,” and the “why” don’t really matter. All we want to know is how they are going to pull it off. Ryder’s plan is ingenious enough to keep my attention, but the script resorts to simple conveniences to move the plot along. The film ends at the Manhattan Bridge in a final showdown of sorts between humble-cool Garber and deranged-cool Ryder. I won’t give the ending away, but needless to say, this film’s track record for predictability speaks for itself. Compared to the 1974 original, this film updates the technology and the racial/cultural tapestry of New York City, but mainly sticks to the basic original plot. For all of its bells and whistles, I felt by the end like I had just watched a two hour prequel to Spike Lee’s far more superior Inside Man.