John Travolta knows how to play memorable villains. He was intense in Face/Off, entertaining in Broken Arrow and mind blowing in Battlefield Earth. Just joking about that last one, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be excited to see the crafty Scientologist back on the dark side - and squaring off against his most worth opponent yet: Denzel Washington. Can you think of two better scene-chewing actors that should work together? Throw in the frenetic Tony Scott and you've got The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, an entertaining though unexceptional action-thriller.
Scott and Washington have a long and successful history together, their loyalty to one another resulting in such projects as Déjà Vu, Man on Fire and Crimson Tide, all of which were entertaining and exciting thrillers to some degree or another. And in general, Scott has very few duds under his belt, save for Domino. Subsequently, it should be expected that Pelham is a visually stimulating, exciting and nonstop action thriller.
It is. Pelham looks, feels and behaves like a Tony Scott film, and therefore is a good source of entertainment for two hours. Travolta and Denzel duke it out, a few people get blown away and a couple of chases ensue. Pelham is consistently entertaining and exciting.
And yet, it is one of Scott's weaker films. The picture has just enough annoying things to keep it from being awesome, and most of the problems fall on Scott's shoulders. Scott once again lets his obsession with visual tricks get the best of him, as he is unwilling to just let his scenes play out as they should. The first few minutes are pretty painful as the camera jerks in seemingly slow motion through the introduction of the bad guys; this sequence is visually unappealing and lacks the setup that could have really made it something. In fact, the hostage takeover sequence is so subdued it's ridiculous.
Once Travolta and Denzel get talking, however, Scott settles down. Denzel is pitch perfect, but Travolta is a little over the top. Still, the two play off each other well enough and make for formidable opponents. Unfortunately, once the action picks up again near the end, Scott's direction gets in the way once more; his chaotic handling of the subway car speeding to its apparent doom (why don't any of the passengers try to stop the car?) is terrible, and other moments are more visually distracting than intriguing. On the screenplay side, the movie ends in a rather disappointing fashion, with a climax that is hardly climactic.
There are a few other little things that are annoying, like the wireless computer that the teenage guy is using to communicate with his girlfriend. The film could have done so much more with this item, and yet it treats it like a modern novelty. It's also pretty absurd to think that the terrorists don't notice the computer that's sitting in plain site or that the girlfriend would demand her boyfriend tell her he loves her while he's being held at gunpoint.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an entertaining action film, but Scott needs to realize that his directing style is hurting his films. His over-the-top style worked in Man on Fire, but it has become old since. The result is a good-but-not-great action film that will serve as a good rental more than an explosive summer blockbuster.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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