I have always had a fear of being on a subway. I’ve never been to a city that has a subway, but if I had, I wouldn’t want to ride it.
I have ridden the Metro Mover in downtown Miami, which I don’t like. I’m always thinking about the worst that could happen. Someone could hold everyone hostage. The mover could break down in mid-air. It could tip over and fall off the track. Either way, if something happens, passengers are stranded and on their own.
In The Taking of Pelham 123, my worst fear is immortalized on the big screen, Ryder (played by John Travolta) and a few gunmen hold 19 passengers hostage on a subway train/car. He ransoms all those passengers for $10 million, to be paid out by the city of New York. A control center dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), is the only person with whom Ryder will negotiate.
At first, this seems like a classic hostage/heist movie. But there was a little difference: Ryder is pretty complex.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland wrote a story about two men who aren’t what they seem to be. Ryder seems like a greedy man, but turns into a touched individual trying to get over on the city of New York for revenge. Garber is a good and decent man, but he has his own dark past.
I’m sure this caper, originally written by novelist John Godey, played a lot better on the pages of a book. There are a few things that aren’t explained well enough for my satisfaction.
One of those things is that Helgeland didn’t really go into detail about Ryder’s character. We, the audience, find out that he used to work on Wall Street, and that the city made an example of him for some illegal activities.
What’s odd is his need to pray, owe God a “death,” and telling a man who has shot him that he’s his hero. Ryder seems to be an order of French Fries short of a Happy Meal. Why? Helgeland never thought to explain this to the audience.
Maybe Helgeland didn’t want the audience to know why Ryder was so touched, but it would have been nice to know. Then again, it is a great reason to go out and buy the book. Also, the ending falls with a thud. After all of that action, thriller and sheer situation comedy, having Garber come home with a smile on his face and half a gallon of milk in the last second of the film seems anti-climactic.
Director Tony Scott contrasted the brightness of the city with the darkness of the subway tunnel, which is quite logical. His direction is actually predictable, seeing as the script becomes its own animal and needs little direction.
Speaking of needing little direction, Travolta, slimmed down, plays crazy a little too well. It is weird to see a confirmed Scientologist wearing a cross in his right ear and praying before making a decision to kill someone.
Washington, with a lot more Washington weight than expected, is his marvelous self. His character is unsure at every turn and isn’t afraid to show his fear. He really makes the audience fret for him and root for him at the same time. I genuinely cared about his well-being.
Rounding out the cast is James Gandolfini as the mayor of New York City (it’s mind-boggling to see Tony Soprano, mob boss, as a city official who is responsible for law and order), John Turturro as hostage negotiator Camonetti (he’s good at playing the detective), Ramon Rodriguez as Delgado (his character mirrors what the audience is thinking and feeling) and Gbenga Akinnagbe as Wallace (it’s nice to see another black man be a hero).
Little Jacob Siciliano as a passenger is quite expressive for a small child, and Tonye Patano as the conductor (she is great as Haylia on “Weeds” and equally great as the scared subway conductor).
The Taking of Pelham 123 is a great caper movie. It’s simple, yet unexpected; which makes it interesting along with its situational, cheeky comedy.
The acting in this film is great, also. Denzel has proven himself, once again, to be great at picking the right roles, and Travolta has finally made a decent comeback.