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John Travolta stars in Columbia Pictures' action thriller "The Taking of Pelham 123."

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THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123

★★★ out of four stars

Rating: R for violence and pervasive language.

On the fast track to hell in 'Pelham 123'

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • June 15, 2009 - 11:48 AM

In the hyperactive hands of director Tony Scott, the remade "Taking of Pelham 123" is equal parts frenzied, frantic and frenetic. Set in a nightmare New York City, the subway hostage thriller batters our nerves like a tom-tom.

The story was told in classic form 35 years ago. Walter Matthau slouched through the film as a sly transit detective in a battle of wits with Freon-cool kidnapper Robert Shaw. The script was a treasure trove of cynical, antiestablishment humor, and had a pleasing variety of tone. It seemed like a supercharged adventure at the time, but today it plays like a stroll through Central Park.

Scott ("Man on Fire") puts the subway cars on a different track. He ditches the jokes, amps up the tension and goes for the jugular. If this "Pelham" were a rock song it would be all power chords, big anxiety-jabbing effects muscling out comic relief. It's a story for an era when terrorism is no laughing matter.

Denzel Washington stars as an MTA official demoted to the dispatcher's desk. He's the first to notice that the Pelham 123 train isn't following its schedule, and the man on the microphone when ringleader John Travolta radios in his demands. Washington is blindsided by the situation; even in post-9/11 New York, nobody expects a ransom demand from terrorists in the bowels of the subway system. Travolta, a raging, gun-crazy killer with a surprisingly shrewd feel for finance, contributes some of his best acting since "Face-Off" and "Broken Arrow." His alarming Fu Manchu mustache and neck tattoo make him look like a Village People leather daddy. It's not a look you'd choose to hide in a police lineup, but persuasive if you want to intimidate a train full of feisty Manhattan commuters.

The near-impossible terms are set: $10 million delivered to the parked train in an hour or the executions begin. The story is a duel of nerves, gamesmanship and intelligence. Washington is believably human as a tubby desk jockey suddenly responsible for negotiating the lives of 19 passengers; you feel his confusion and discomfort as he tries to reason with Travolta's half-crazed killer. While the plot grinds away, we can savor another kind of competition with a pair of powerhouse actors wrestling for ownership of the movie.

The film is more than "Die Hard -- With A Transfer." Brian Helgeland's script shrewdly layers on some ambiguity. The good guys aren't paragons; Washington has a significant skeleton in his closet. Travolta's character has his own deranged justifications for his attack. He's not taking aim at individual hostages, but striking back at the city that betrayed him. James Gandolfini plays the mayor as a shrewd pragmatist, but echoes of Tony Soprano surround the character. John Turturro, another actor trailing a long résumé of fiends and degenerates, appears as a coolly calculating hostage negotiator. A lot of the dialogue deals with Catholic concepts of innocence and guilt, but as in Helgeland's "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River," there are no purebred saints and sinners on the screen.

The film is expensively produced and deliriously, intentionally ugly. The city looks like a grim, grungy beast, more an ominous character in the story than a background. Scott shoots scenes through smudged windows, smears on toxic colors like melting Crayolas, and blurs bursts of activity for added visual oomph. If it weren't for the gunfire and shattered glass, you might think you were watching an overblown art film.

The ending leaves you uplifted, but it doesn't equal the throwaway gag that capped the original, the best use of an "Achoo!" in cinema history. There's nothing wrong with this movie that a little sneezing powder wouldn't fix.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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