Tony Scott is a lucky guy. One week earlier and his remake du jour, The Taking of Pelham 123, would have been forced to follow Up and Drag Me to Hell; a few weeks later and it would have come in on the heels of Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Instead, Scott's macho hostage drama hits theaters in the wake of Land of the Lost, a movie so indescribably awful that the summer movie bar is now practically subterranean.
So all Scott had to do was make a movie that didn't blow. Consummate professional that he is, though, Scott went one better: not only does The Taking of Pelham 123 not blow, it's actually fairly entertaining. It derails spectacularly in the last half hour, but for the most part it's a satisfying bit of throwaway fun summer cinema.
Scott gets the action going before the audience has had a chance to settle into its seats. The opening shots introduce the movie's villain, Ryder (John Travolta), as he slinks down a busy New York thoroughfare and into the subway, where we know nothing good will happen. (We know right away he's the villain, because he has prison tats and scary facial hair.) By the time the opening credits are done, Ryder and his crew have hijacked a train and taken hostages, whom they insist they'll start killing if the city doesn't deliver $10,000,000 cash in one hour.
Ryder makes his demands via radio to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a disgraced Transit Authority big shot who's been demoted to dispatcher after being accused of taking a bribe. Garber knows he's in over his head and has no business assuming the role of a hostage negotiator, but Ryder will talk to no one else.
Most of the movie plays out in scene after scene of progressively tense give-and-take banter between the two men as Garber tries to buy time and Ryder becomes increasingly unhinged. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, best known for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, orchestrate these scenes beautifully, anchoring the growing tension and suspense with skillful character development. Washington carries the movie, playing against type as the soft, uncertain Garber. Travolta is… well, he's Travolta. He overacts and chews every inch of scenery in sight, but at least he does it with style and a weird kind of charm. The supporting cast, including indie vet John Turturro as a hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini as a Michael Bloomberg-inspired New York mayor, is excellent.
Curiously, the movie only soars when it's at its most constrained. When the action is confined to the subway tunnels and rail control center that serve as its primary settings, it has a kind of simmering energy that keeps it hurtling down the track. When he gets out in the open, though, Scott's trademark frenetic cinematography and choppy MTV editing are distracting and just plain irritating. The camera never stops moving, no matter how badly you want it to. If someone had been thoughtful enough to slip the director a daily Ritalin mickey, maybe the audience could have left the Dramamine at home.
The movie also succeeds at the increasingly tough task of making violence shocking. With his notions of entitlement and blamelessness, Ryder is a volatile and sometimes frightening villain; we have no doubt he'll make good on his threat to kill hostages, and it's genuinely disturbing when he does. It almost makes up for the movie's disappointing, but not particularly offensive, tendency toward action-movie stereotyping. Women are relegated to answering an occasional phone call and encouraging (or annoying) their men folk, and we know as soon as we see him that the only black hostage will die a courageous, noble death.
Pelham's worst misstep, though, is when it underestimates the audience and decides that what we really want are car crashes and shoot-outs. When the film finally puts a gun in Garber's hand and sends him off to play action hero, it loses nearly all of the tension it had so painstakingly cultivated. The third act is rife with coincidence and implausibility, even though Scott redeems himself to some extent with an inspired final image.
If you have a Tony Scott scale (and if you do, I'm concerned for your soul), put this one somewhere above Man on Fire and below True Romance. It's a hit-and-miss cocktail of things that work and things that don't, but at least it's a top-shelf concoction.