Sony Pictures has positioned The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 as June's official grown-up movie. Of course, they let Tony Scott direct it, so they're clearly hedging their bets a little bit. But it still handles its appointed task with a decent amount of verve. There's a bad guy with a cunning plan, a good guy in over his head, and a few twists and turns along the way to keep the formula from becoming too stale. If it never feels quite as clever as it thinks it is, so what? It's going to look like freaking Antonioni when Transformers lands in a couple of weeks.
Scott does the picture a further service by toning down his usual epileptic editing style. While Pelham suffers from an excess of attitude and a few too many hyperkinetic montages, it generally sticks to business by keeping the audience focused resolutely on the dilemma at hand.
The instigator is a man known only as Ryder (John Travolta), with a slick scheme to steal $10 million (and a whole lot more) by hijacking a New York City subway. He has an accomplice who knows the tunnels like the back of his hand, allowing them to plant the train in a no man's land beneath the city with 100 yards of kill zone on either side. He further stacks the deck by only negotiating with the subway dispatch operator rather than the police. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a working stiff with problems of his own, has the unenviable task for keeping Ryder occupied while the city comes up with the ransom money. With a deadline of 60 minutes, his hostage-negotiating skills get one hell of a crash course.
Much of the film focuses on the give and take between them--two guys barking at each other over a CB--which may explain Scott's insistence on framing Pelham like a constant gunfight to perk things up. That his visuals appear merely incongruous instead of totally overwhelming likely stems from the presence two such stalwart leads, whom Scott clearly trusts enough to ease back on the seizure-inducing flashiness. Both actors handle their respective duties perfectly: Washington the flawed but intelligent everyman quietly stewing at the idiocy surrounding him; Travolta tearing off chunks of scenery with his teeth, but doing so with such glee and relish that the film's entertainment value skyrockets by default.
The scenario itself holds water reasonably well: easy to understand, but possessing sufficient nooks to pop out and surprise us now and then. Admittedly some developments work better than others; more than once, Pelham sets up a crackerjack sequence, only to find it going nowhere fast. The third act, in particular, loses some of the film's pent-up intensity and a too-neat wrap-up clashes with the sense of post 9/11 grit which Scott and his team work so hard to create.
Despite that, enough of the material works often enough to sell the overall package. Pelham doesn't overstay its welcome, nor does it waste much time getting to the point. It eschews the deadpan humor which marked the 1974 movie, but screenwriter Brian Helgeland compensates with more thoughtful characterizations, drawing interesting (if not entirely original) parallels between hero and villain. New York may be the most overexposed city in filmdom, but Scott still lends it a strong sense of identity: this is most definitely Manhattan, not Toronto or Vancouver masquerading as such. Ryder sees the city as the enemy, which is why he focuses on civic employee Garber as his adversary of choice. In light of that, his true plans and identity attain additional resonance, skewering the hypocrisy of those who benefit the most from the urban jungle even as they reject it. The results may not make for the quiet classic of the first film, but possess enough sand and energy to justify a remake. Adults can't afford to be choosy in a season full of giant robots and mindless explosions. Pelham will help them hold on for at least a little while longer.