New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber's (Denzel Washington) ordinary day is thrown into chaos by an audacious crime: the hijacking of a subway train. Ryder (John Travolta), a criminal mastermind and leader of a highly-armed gang of four, threatens to execute the train's passengers unless a large ransom is paid within one hour.
As the tension mounts beneath his feet, Garber employs his vast knowledge of the subway system in a battle to outwit Ryder and save the hostages. But there's one riddle Garber can't solve: even if the thieves get the money, how can they possibly escape?
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks.
Personally, I don't feel that statement is entirely accurate, as we taught ours to roll over when he was about eleven. So this will probably sound mean, but after analyzing the last three or four frenetic Tony Scott films, I can't help but wonder if maybe instead of "dog," what they really meant was "director."
Now don't get me wrong, I think his schizophrenic style can work wonders in the right situations. I thought it suited the crackling intensity in 'Man on Fire,' and to an extent, the bizarreness of 'Domino.' But in the case of 'Déjà Vu,' it proved that making a movie look snazzy doesn't always hide its shortcomings, and sometimes, it can even enhance them.
Scott's latest film, 'The Taking of Pelham 123,' sort of falls into the same rut. If the title sounds familiar, it should, as it's a remake of the '70s thriller starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. While terrorism plots are typically fairly cut and dry, the potential was still there for a decent post-9/11 retelling. Unfortunately, Scott squanders the opportunity, smearing it over with such an excessive amount of his habitually hectic camera trickery that it actually does more harm than good.
MTA dispatcher Walter Garber ('Crimson Tide' veteran Denzel Washington) is about to have one explosive afternoon. When four gunmen seize control of one of New York's subways and take the commuters on board hostage, the terrorist leader calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) sends his ultimatum: $10 million in cash within the hour, or the passengers will be executed one by one. Soon, Walter is joined in the control room by NYPD negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) as well as the mayor (James Gandolfini), though Ryder insists on only dealing with his newfound radio chum. As the deadline draws near, not only will Walter be forced to continue conversing with the madman, but also choose between exposing a dark personal secret or saving lives.
Part of the problem with 'The Taking of Pelham 123' is the thinly written script by Brian Helgeland. Even though he does make a few changes to the characters, and gives his version a modern update, there isn't a heck of a lot going on here. For the majority of the film, there are really only two settings: the control room and the train. But rather than padding it with character development and building tension to draw us in, Scott goes trigger-happy with the dizzying camera swirls, quick edits, fast forwards, rewinds, and rampant zooming that it has more of a repelling effect. I'm all for a little razzle-dazzle every now and then in a movie, but all the director has done in this instance is create a visual circus.
'The Taking of Pelham 123' also has a couple doses of action sequences, but most are so inane it's blatantly obvious that their sole purpose was to fluff up the film. In one scene a police sniper takes on a rat (without spoiling anything, let's just say the rat wins) and we can't forget the totally absurd trek across New York City to deliver the ransom money. The police motorcade speeds through traffic--cruisers flipping to the left and motorcycles crashing to the right (in very underwhelming ways I might add)--all while a helicopter twiddles its thumbs overhead! Seriously, if you must break up a monotonous storyline with some action, can you at least do it without making the NYPD look like complete morons?
The highest point of the movie is the performances, and even then they aren't anything to write home about. As always, Washington is solid, although in all fairness portraying an average Joe isn't a very demanding role. Travolta is entertaining but quickly becomes tiresome, practically twirling his mustache with sadistic glee and punctuating every second sentence with an F-sharp. The other three hijackers barely have any screen time, and Turturro has so little to do they could have just cast his advisor, real-life negotiator Lt. Jack Cambria. When a film's most interesting character is the mayor, something isn't right.
In the end, 'The Taking of Pelham 123' may serve as a passable popcorn flick, as I'm sure some folks will find the presentation to be a moderately entertaining ride. For others like myself, it will be a relatively forgettable and potentially irritating time-waster, one that puts style light years ahead of substance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony presents 'The Taking of Pelham 123' on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray Disc that comes in a standard blue keepcase. As usual, before getting to the menu the studio has inserted a few forced trailers ('Blu-ray Disc is High-Definition,' 'Angels & Demons,' and 'District 9'). The U.S. version of the disc is also reported to be region free and therefore should function properly in all PlayStation 3 and standalone players.
While I may have thought the movie was just so-so, it sure does look pretty sweet on Blu-ray. If you're familiar with the high-definition releases of 'Man on Fire' or 'Deja Vu,' you should have an idea of what to expect with this dazzling 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.40:1 aspect ratio) transfer.
The source is intentionally grainy, but there are no blemishes, dirt, or artifacts to be found. Colors are a bit subdued yet still striking, while contrast runs hot. Black levels are incredibly rich and deep throughout with very little crushing, and the level of depth and detail is also impressive. The crispness of facial features reveal delicate textures and every skin imperfection with clarity, and the graying hair and stubble on Washington is so distinguishable you can practically go at them with a pair of tweezers. There's occasional blurring due to the lightning fast movements of Scott's cinematography, though the picture never breaks up or bleeds. I did notice one excessively noisy tunnel shot lasting only a few seconds when the train started moving again, but other than that Sony has once again delivered another razor-sharp and nearly spotless transfer.
The high-definition version of 'The Taking of Pelham 123' comes with three lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks (English, French, and Spanish) that have a very engaging sound design.
The soundfield benefits from seamless pans and an expansive dynamic range. Surrounds are most pronounced during the smattering of action scenes, but the rear channels also provide widespread discrete effects on the train and in the highly populated control room. Powerful bass gives the moving train a dominating presence, the hard-driving music extra punch, and gunshots distinct heft. Dialogue balance is precise as well. The vocals and frequent radio banter between Travolta and Washington is never obscured by other noises. In short, your remote can pretty well have the night off with this superbly presented DTS-HD mix.
The Blu-ray also includes a Catalan Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as optional English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish subtitles.
Most of the supplements included on this Blu-ray can also be found on the DVD release. Except for one featurette, all of the content is presented in full 1080p.
'The Taking of Pelham 123' isn't a terrible film, but it really could have been handled so much better. Tony Scott cakes so much make-up on its face that he even gets it on the eyebrows and all over its teeth. The Blu-ray, however, will stop traffic, having a few extras and a stunning audio/video presentation. Still, this is one film that likely won't hold up well for repeat viewings, so I'd probably go with a rental.
Oh, and just so I don't get hate mail for this review's intro here's something to consider: Tony Scott's next film, 'Unstoppable,' apparently also stars Denzel Washington… and a train. I guess a new trick won't be showing up anytime soon.