Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Stop when you've heard this before. There's a hijacked New York city subway train; the criminal leader is a deranged yet charismatic psycho forming a bond with an everyman rail co-ordinator over the mike; the mayor is self-serving and incompetent; there's a ransom deadline to be met before the hostages are capped. And it's directed by Tony Scott so it begins with an irritating RnB scored fast motion city montage as commuters buzz about their daily concerns.

Doesn't sound too promising does it? But there's no breeding of contempt here as Scott's remake of 1974's The Taking of Pelham 123 is a surprisingly gripping affair, transcending the surface gloss, at least for its first three quarters, to become a plausible portrayal of two desperate men screwed over by 'the system'. Hardly Shakespeare but far more adequate than your normal functional blockbuster.

Assaying a real scumbag (perhaps his first genuine psycho) is a scary John Travolta (replacing Robert Shaw) as Ryder, cropped of hair and tatooed of skin who demands a multi million dollar ransom in exchange for the communters of the Pelham 123 train. The everyman with whom he shares more in common than it appears is dispatch officer Garber (Denzel Washington, replacing Walter Matthau), recently embroiled in scandal and demoted in his job. The two men are set to intersect, much like, yes, the railways Garber is charged at managing...

Despite his typically lurid lensing and jittery editing, Scott generates real tension in the early going, no doubt benefiting from the cramped claustrophobic setting of the subway car itself, a place where Travolta's sneering villain certainly isn't afraid to end innocent lives to get his point across. Playing expertly off his co-stars more flashy exuberance, despite the lack of face to face contact, is Washington, always an expert at underplaying character decency in the face of desperation. Ryder and Garber's give and take tussling in fact serves to remind audiences of that between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's (superior) Collateral, from which scriber Brian Helgeland has clearly taken inspiration.

The supporting cast is also excellent, a pleasant surprise given their usual anonymity in the urban thriller genre. James Gandolfini's mayor (first seen demeaning himself riding the train to work) has crises of his own that come to enrage Ryder further in blackly comic fashion, while John Turturro's ineffectual hostage negotiator finds his qualifications count for nothing when dealing with a real nutjob. Together Scott's tapestry, inevitably dealt a sense of post-9/11 paranoia, feels wider, richer and more urgent than many contemporary thrillers. As the crisis goes city wide, it's also refreshing and funny to see the difficulty inherent in transporting money against the clock across a crowded metropolis.

Sadly it goes off the boil in the finale, forgoing the pent up tension and centering the remainder of the narrative above ground as Ryder and his crew put the finishing touches on their plans. Washington goes action man; the cops that have been closing in become redundant; and, in order to inject some contrived levity, the lead character's wife demands he return alive with milk in hand. It's a disappointing yet perhaps inevitable stoop to Hollywood convention in a thriller that has been exactly that all along - but at least it's one that shows initial panache.

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