The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 not engaging enough

BY TANNER KOOMAR | JUNE 15, 2009 7:26 AM

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
** out of *****

Quick! You need to construct the costume for an average-Joe movie hero. What are the essentials? Glasses? Check. Paunch? Check. Dwight Schrute-worthy mustard shirt? Check.

Now what about the sociopathic villain? Black leather jacket? Check. Neck tattoo? Check. Creepy mustache? Hell, yeah.

John Travolta and Denzel Washington fit these stereotypical roles perfectly in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. The remake of the 1970s classic has a rather simple premise: Bad guy with badass alias Ryder (Travolta) and his gang of goons hijacks a subway train and demands $10 million within the hour for the hostages. Good guy (Washington) is unlucky enough to be the dispatcher covering that subway line.

Head games are played. The mayor gets involved. Cars race through the streets. It’s exciting. Kind of.

The movie wasn’t meant to be an action-packed thrill ride. There aren’t any big explosions, and compared with many recent action flicks, the body count is relatively low. The movie is supposed to be smart. It just isn’t.

Or, at least, that’s how it treats its audience. The movie is like a watered-down version of the original meant to appeal to people who are easily impressed by cheesy plots and outrageous special effects.

People who have no idea what character development is. You know. Idiots.

I constantly found myself wanting more. More characters, for one. Washington and Travolta do very good jobs in their roles. But, with the exception of John Turturro as a hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini as the New York City mayor, no one else gets any screen time — and even they don’t get enough.

I wanted more plot too. There we practically no twists or turns. Sure, you’re left in the dark on Travolta’s origins for a while, and Washington makes an almost startling revelation. In the end, though, the movie has absolutely no, “Oh, man! What just happened?!” moments.

In all honesty, the thing the movie does right is updating the scenario to fit the modern day. The original flick (which is amazing, you should probably go rent it — now … don’t worry, I’ll wait) relied heavily on the seediness and ethnic tensions of the 1970s. The remake relies on terrorism and Wall Street greed. This makes the plot just as pertinent, but it doesn’t have the same impact — you can’t see greed saturating a setting the same way you can see criminal anarchy.

The only other bright spot might be the humor. It isn’t the same variety that appeared in the original film, but it’s still good. In fact, it’s wonderfully believable. When people are in stressful situations they tend to make little jokes to lighten the tension. They don’t typically tell gut busters or rattle off one liners, they just try to distract themselves for a moment. In capturing this, writer Brian Helgeland did an admirable job.

At the end of the day, this movie just isn’t engaging enough. You don’t need to think about the characters, you don’t need to think about the plot. It’s all just handed to you. If you love thrillers, you’ll probably feel like asking to see the “grown-up” version of the movie — but unfortunately, given the slim selection of thrillers set to release this summer, Pelham 1 2 3 is probably as good as it’s going to get.

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