The Taking of Pelham 123

It’s been a slow summer moviewise. We’ve had a mediocre superhero movie, one great revival of a science fiction series and one disappointing one, a Pixar masterpiece and a few decent thrillers. Here we are in mid June and it appears to be over. I’m not really thrilled about a new Transformers movie, since the first one stunk so bad. Harry Potter is about the only reason to look forward at this point. Compared to last year when we had great films every week well into July, this summer is definitely sub par. Or else it could be that last year’s blockbuster season was exceptional. In either case nothing that opened this week really appealed  to the fanboy in me, so I went old school and saw The Taking of Pelham 123, a remake of a gritty 70’s crime film.

I know I saw the original version, maybe in the theater, but probably on TV. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about it, except that it had a lot of natural lighting and grainy film stock. It was very much in the same vein as Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection, depicting a New York that reeled from one crisis to the next. The nightmare of urban life was a major theme in those days, when everything seemed to be falling apart.

Tony Scott, the director and Brian Helgaland, the screenwriter try and recapture that vibe. They break out the grainy film stock and put away the tripods to duplicate the feel of the first version. However, we may not be far enough into this recession to enable Hollywood to make a real statement about hopelessness and anarchy, at least not in the summer. There are glimmers of hope at the end of this film.

The premise is simple. A disgruntled ex-con, who calls himself Ryder, played by John Travolta, leads a team of guys he met in prison in a scheme to hijack a subway train. When he has control of the train, he gets on the radio to the Rail Control Center. Manning the radio at that point is Walter Garber, played by Denzel Washington. As events play out the two develop a relationship.

Both Travolta and Washington turn in sharp and entertaining performances, although neither of them are really stretching their ranges. Travolta’s Ryder is smart, articulate and a little defensive. He’s quick to blame his misdeeds on others. He’s hoping to get away at the end, but he’s also ready to die. Washington plays a family man who’s made a mistake and taken a bribe in the past. He’s under investigation. But he’s not really a bad guy (he used the money to pay for his children’s college tuition) and he has a lot of compassion for the people in the train.

The supporting performances are good too. John Turturro plays Camonetti, the city’s hostage negotiator. In lessor hands this role could have become a caricature of an inflexible arrogant bureaucrat who adds to the problem. Turturro plays him as a solid professional who’s rules of thumb and experience actually help Washington’s character. James Gandolfini plays the disgraced Mayor of the city, who has been caught in an affair and knows his political career is over. He’s just finishing out his time and looking forward to returning to real life. Gandolfini gives a nuanced performance that evokes a little sympathy.

Rather than being about hopelessness and anarchy this film is about redemption. Walter Garber gets it. Ryder refuses it. Given the premise of the script, there really isn’t a lot of pontificating about it but there is some, mostly from Travolta. What the filmmakers are saying is obvious but they don’t beat you over the head with it.

There are some problems. What Garber does at the end is a little unbelievable. At one point, the Mayor and his staff figure out who Ryder really is but nothing is done with that particular plot point. These are minor quibbles, however.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a decent summer movie.

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