The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

in Action, Dick Flicks

Dick Flick Pick

  • Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta
  • Director: Tony Scott
  • Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), John Godey (novel)

With Denzel Washington and John Travolta headlining, I expected a solid action romp bursting with fireworks.  But “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” takes it a few steps farther, thanks to screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s insightful adaptation of John Godey’s novel.

The title pretty much explains what you need to know:  it’s a hostage movie.  In this case, Travolta is the guy that captures New York City’s Pelham 1 2 3 train, and Washington is the unlucky public transit worker who happens to be on duty when the ransom call comes in.  From the start, we know nothing’s quite the way it seems.  Travolta’s terrorist leader, whom we know only as “Ryder” with a “y,” dictates a ridiculous dollar amount per hostage that miraculously adds up to ten million big ones, plus an extra penny for Walter Garber (Washington) as a “broker fee.”

A mellow sweater-vest type, Garber is quicker than he first appears and jots down observations until the hostage negotiator arrives.  Though Garber’s blatantly mining for information, Travolta takes a liking to him anyway and plays along.  At least, until a quasi-bipolar snap renders Ryder violently incommunicado.  The negotiator immediately sends Garber home for the day, of course.  Unfortunately for the hostages, Ryder has already latched onto Garber sumthin’ fierce.  That’s when things turn bloody.

Channeling “Die Hard,” which will forever set the standard to which all dick flicks aspire, Helgeland delves deep enough into Washington’s character to let the audience invest themselves in his well-being for reasons other than “Well, he’s the good guy.”  Travolta attacks the psychopathic Ryder with infectious zeal, and the chemistry between the two stars powers their relationship past the not-inconsiderable hurdle of almost never sharing a screen.

Be forewarned, however.  If you’re coming to this movie to see Denzel kick serious ass a la “Book of Eli” or “American Gangster,” don’t.  In a refreshing change of pace, Washington takes a turn as an everyday family man who may never even have seen a gun.  Not your usual action hero, but Garber is all the more compelling for it.  And in case you’ve forgotten that Washington has an Academy Award tucked in his back pocket, one excruciating scene actually wrung tears from my eyes.  Not bad for an action thriller.

Dick flick – absolutely.  Now, we can excuse that for the two leads.  Obviously this is a Washington-Travolta vehicle, and they drive it off a cliff at a hundred miles an hour.  But, falling back to Definitions #2 and 3 in the green side panel, there couldn’t be even one female working in the MTA control center, really?  A girl with lines, not just the two or three lurking in doorways.  Instead, who do we have?  The worried wife who stays at home and watches the drama unfold on TV.  The worried girlfriend who watches on her computer and tries to wring those three uber-important words from her held-at-gunpoint boyfriend.  And the worried mother who begs a big strong military man to protect her and her son the way her late military husband would have.

Wait – we do have the female train conductor, and I do not discount her significance.  Most girls in dick flicks are allowed in solely for plot-related reasons.  And, okay, maybe a mainstream audience would have trouble with a ruthless assault-rifle-wielding gunwoman thug.  But the dearth of women in the control center and police and political ranks reeks of the casting mantra “Male Unless Otherwise Specified.”

Gender gripes aside, it’s an awesome film.  One of the best things about Helgeland’s script is that it doesn’t give in to the contrived conflict creations that are seemingly mandated by the hostage crisis formula:  lay hero vs. official negotiator, rational negotiator vs. trigger-happy SWAT, righteous SWAT vs. sleazy politician.  As the clock runs down, we’re allowed a glimpse at various city departments that, while they may not spend Christmas together, can work in tangent when the need arises.

The dialogue is quotable without making you groan out loud (maybe no surprise, coming from the writer of “L. A. Confidential”).  The action is edge-of-your-seat yet plausible enough;  there’s even one ridiculous but turbo-charged chase that is dismissed with a knowing aside.  Ryder’s irrational attachment to Garber is almost endearing.  Almost.  And Garber flips a snazzy hand gesture that’ll be all the rage with sweater-vest wearers.

This is the best straight-out action flick I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s due in large part to the sheer ordinariness of the hero Washington chooses to create.  And at the crux of it, you have Travolta and Washington, Washington and Travolta.  It’s worth it just to watch them tango.

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