Heist movies are great. I love putting the plan that's unfolding onscreen under a microscope and picking it apart. Who doesn't like to think they are smarter than a criminal mastermind? Without even seeing Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, I had a pretty good idea why the heist was bound to fail and what I'd do differently. I wouldn't hijack a subway car. Where's the money in that? Hijacking and hostage taking just seems like too much effort for an uncertain payoff.
Of course if you've ever seen a couple of heist movies you've probably guessed that there is a twist to this film. It's not the most interesting twist I've seen, but neither is this movie. It's classified as a crime thriller, but Scott's directing makes it look and feel more like an action flick. Unfortunately, there isn't enough action in the film to make it a good action film. The end result left me confused and unsatisfied. Thankfully, Denzel Washington and John Travolta are entertaining enough to make The Taking of Pelham enjoyable.
During the opening credits, the unstable Ryder with a "y" (John Travolta) gets things going when he hijacks the subway car Pelham 1 2 3. I like that Tony Scott doesn't waste any time examining the backgrounds of the players in this film. The audience gets plenty of opportunities to learn more about Ryder and Denzel Washington's character, Walter Garber, as most of the story unfolds over an intercom. This is a hostage situation after all. So through their conversations, the audience learns more about Garber and Ryder as they learn more about each other. This plays out really well mid-way through the movie when Ryder forces Garber to reveal some very personal information in front of a lot of people. In between scenes filled with drama and dialogue, the camera quickly zips around New York from one location to another in stylized cuts. Visually, these cuts, and the general cinematography of the film, reminded me Scott's Man on Fire.
I enjoyed Denzel's performance as Garber, your average Joe dispatcher for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority). He becomes involved in the plot when he is the first person to speak to Ryder after the train has been hijacked. As the story unfolds, we learn that there are a few skeletons in his closet, which help explain and legitimize his role in the story. These flaws also make Garber a more believable and interesting character. The same can't be said for the film's antagonist, the villainous Ryder.
It's a shame really, because John Travolta was the reason I wanted to see this movie. I love Travolta when he's a bad guy, but I found his portrayal of Ryder to be inconsistent. I couldn't tell if he was supposed to be an unstable lunatic or if he was a genius pretending to be a lunatic. The predicable little twist at the end of the film provides us a glimpse into Ryder's past. That a good thing, right? Yes, explanations in a movie usually are, but these revelations made me further question Ryder's behavior. Given the character's background, I don't believe that he would take such extreme actions to make a few bucks. I also thought Ryder swore way too much, almost to a comical degree. These issues aside, Travolta isn't considered an A-list actor for nothing. He brings intensity to this role that makes the character work.
Ultimately, the success of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 comes down to the John Travolta and Denzel Washington. Neither actor puts on an Oscar-worthy performance, but if you're a fan of their movies this might be worth watching. If you're looking for a thought-provoking crime thriller, however, look somewhere else.