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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


John Travolta plays a psychopath who hijacks a New York City subway train in The Taking of Pelham 123
Film fans always get up in arms whenever Hollywood decides to remake a classic movie, and rightfully so. I always think the studios should avoid trying to tackle something that was great the first time and focus instead on remaking the ones that either didn't work or have been forgotten. That's what makes The Taking of Pelham 123 an intriguing proposition. While the original (starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw) certainly did well upon its release in 1974, it hasn't exactly achieved the classic status of other films from the decade. You never hear it mentioned in the same breath as All the President's Men or Dog Day Afternoon or The Godfather. While I seriously doubt this new version will become a classic either, it realizes that New York's subway system (which is the story's milieu) has been updated considerably since the 70's and therefore feels like a generally justified remake.

John Travolta plays Ryder, a psychopath who, with the aid of his henchmen, hijacks a subway car and parks it deep in the bowels of the city's tunnel system. His actions are noticed by transit worker Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who is monitoring the flow of subway traffic from the MTA building across town. Garber has also recently been demoted at work following allegations of impropriety. Ryder tells Garber that if he isn't given $10,000,000 within an hour, he's going to start killing hostages. Garber then works in conjunction with a police hostage negotiator (John Turturro) and the city mayor (James Gandolfini) to find a way to extract the innocents aboard the car and bring Ryder to justice.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is what they like to call a "cat and mouse chase." While there is certainly drama inherent in the idea of a hijacked subway car full of hostages, there's another drama playing out at the same time. Ryder senses in Garber a kindred spirit. Both, he thinks, have been screwed by the system - the psychopath for his past deeds and the transit worker for the damaging allegations leveled against him. As they talk to one another over an intercom system, Ryder almost seems like he's trying to get Garber to join his cause, to recognize that the "system" is screwed up. The story milks some suspense from this, although with Denzel Washington in the lead role, it's not exactly a surprise which route his character eventually takes.

There's nothing really dazzling or original here. However, I admit being kind of charmed by the story's old-fashioned nature. So many modern action movies cross over into the realm of the preposterous. For instance, compare the relative plausibility of the original Die Hard with the ludicrousness of the most recent sequel, Live Free or Die Hard. Both are fun pictures, but the John McClane character went from fighting a terrorist in a high-rise building to jumping on top of moving jet fighters and forcing a car to collide with an in-flight helicopter. Pelham 123 feels a bit movie-ish and over-the-top in a few scenes (most notably the final confrontation between Ryder and Garber), but it gives us a mostly possible scenario. I was willing to go along for the ride simply because it was nice to see a thriller where the events depicted could really happen.

Director Tony Scott brings the same attention-deficit style to this movie as he did to many of his other films, like Man on Fire, Domino, and Déjà Vu. He's apparently incapable of composing a simple shot; everything is jazzed up with freeze frames, adjusted shutter speeds, and swirling camera movements. But that's okay because it works in this context, taking what could be rather static shots of Washington and Travolta talking into microphones and turning them into something with a pulse. He also has fun with the modern equipment used by the transit system, including giant screens that allow workers to track where all the subway cars are going.

Scott also knows how to assemble a cast. Everyone's good here, especially Denzel Washington, who appears to have packed on a few pounds to play his everyman character. I'll admit some hesitation about John Travolta playing a psychopath. While he's successfully portrayed people who are not always sympathetic (Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever) or downright criminal (Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction), he seems too genuinely likeable to play a complete madman. While Travolta is not the most menacing movie villain - I'd have loved to see Jackie Earle Haley in the role - he does acquit himself decently. It helps that his character's backstory allows Ryder to be human and not just some unstoppable force of evil.

On the whole, I was entertained by The Taking of Pelham 123. It's not the most exciting movie I've ever seen (or even seen this year; that would be Knowing), but it is a solid thriller with good performances and a workman-like construction from Tony Scott. In other words, there are worse ways to spend two hours in a movie theater this summer.

( out of four)

The Taking of Pelham 123 is rated R for violence and pervasive language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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