"Take your earplugs."

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Take your earplugs to “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Director Tony Scott presents us with a deafening cacophony of urban noise that starts in the first scene. The cumulative effect is to reduce the audience to a collective nervous wreck. While the subway drama unfolds below ground, Scott unfurls the above ground reaction to the taking of a train full of hostages. This consists primarily of police cars, taxis, motorcycles, and helicopters – all with screaming sirens, horns, and the requisite shattering of glass. Then Scott amplifies the volume to a nearly earsplitting level while we sit trapped in our seats.

            But hold on; things do improve. The noise and peripheral characters could be dispensed with altogether because the movie focuses entirely on two good thriller performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Facing off against the killer’s countdown clock, both men are caught up in a battle of words and psychology; nothing more is needed.
Ryder (John Travolta) commandeers Pelham 1 2 3 (a subway to Pelham that leaves every day at 1:23), cuts loose all cars and passengers but one, and initiates a call to Garver (Denzel Washington), a dispatcher in the bowels of the MTA. He demands one million dollars and a conversation with the mayor. Deadline: one hour. Chaos reigns above ground while below, two men bargain for the lives of the passengers.

            Ryder, it turns out, has a past in business that puts him squarely in the contemporary world of Wall Street scandal. Can he get away with a million dollars and make it work for him while he’s pulling off this heist? What a deal that would be; but he has exacted too big a price for his capital. This man is a demented sicko who is perfectly willing to shoot anyone who annoys him. As for the rest, he will kill one passenger each minute after the deadline passes. Meanwhile, he gets to know Garber.

            As for Garber, he was a glass office man at the MTA until he was accused of skimming bribe money on a business trip to Japan to choose a new model train. Is he guilty? The shadow alone is enough to make Garber vulnerable. Deliberately subduing his natural presence, Denzel Washington is thoroughly credible as a motorman who worked his way up to the front office. So we have a standoff phone conversation between two actors who are so talented that they relegate all the other players, even James Goldofini’s fatuous mayor, to the warm-up pen. A mom and her small son grab our attention but their story line is dropped.

            Though this is a movie wrapped in crisis and mayhem, the only thing we really see is a prolonged conversation between two adversaries, each trying to win a deadly game. The mayhem is merely window dressing for the interaction between John Travolta and Denzel Washington, and for their fans, that’s enough.


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