The Taking of Pelham 123 (R) **

John Travolta stars in Columbia Pictures' action thriller "The Taking of Pelham 123." Photo:Courtesy Columbia Pictures/MCT.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Hiring Tony Scott to direct The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is like hiring Michael Bay to direct My Dinner With Andre: A colossal mismatch of director and material. Scott’s (Top Gun, True Romance) directorial style has evolved — or, depending on your taste, devolved — into a frantic, hyperkinetic rush of images (Domino, Man on Fire) capable of inducing seizures.

His signature camera slingings have little purpose in this remake of the 1974 cult classic, which largely consists of two people talking via short-wave radio. On one end is Walter (Denzel Washington), a New York City subway dispatcher being investigated for bribery. On the other is Ryder (John Travolta), the leader of a group of gun-toting crooks holding a subway car of passengers hostage in a tunnel deep beneath the city.

Ryder wants $10 million delivered to him in an hour, and he threatens to kill one passenger for every minute the money is late. He also makes it clear early on that he means business. The bulk of Pelham, which plays out in something close to real time a la 24, consists of a battle of wits between Walter and Ryder, the former trying to buy the hostages more time while the mayor (James Gandolfini) scrambles to get the ransom money transported from Brooklyn to the drop-off point within the allotted hour.

Of course, Manhattan traffic makes this supremely difficult. ”Why didn’t they use a chopper?” someone asks. Because then Scott wouldn’t have an excuse to break away from all the boring conversation scenes, which he runs out of creative ways to shoot, and cut to all kinds of vehicular mayhem involving the police car racing to deliver the money.

As superfluous as they are, the car-crash sequences are still a godsend, because the interplay between Washington and Travolta isn’t all that involving, despite a few new wrinkles screenwriter Brian Helgeland throws into their cat-and-mouse relationship.

The mood within the train is appropriately tense, but Pelham wastes several opportunities for maximizing suspense by setting up situations, such as a kid on the train who is transmitting the ordeal via webcam on his laptop, then squandering them in the least effective manner. Eventually, the action leaves the tunnels and heads topside for more frantic chases, although Scott’s game here is off, too.

For example, you don’t convey the panic and danger of a runaway train by shooting it in. Slow. Motion. And if you’re going to surround a minor bad guy with hordes of police officers, their guns all drawn and pointed, you need to give him a better reason to start shooting — and commit certain suicide — than the belief that he’s going to get away. The scene is just plain silly. So is the movie.

Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli.

Director: Tony Scott.

Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland. Based on the novel by John Godey.

Producers: Todd Black, Tony Scott, Jason Blumenthal.

A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 106 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.


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