The Taking of Pelham 123: Denzel vs. John

Taking_pelham_123-336x500 The Taking of Pelham 123, so named because of a subway train in New York city, is a summer action film that stars two of the biggest names in the business: Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Many reviewers, besides not liking the plot all that much, have made a great deal out of Denzel and John starring in the same film.

The plot is basic. It revolves around the taking of a New York subway train, with hostages, in an elaborate scheme in which the hostage taker (Travolta) meets a subway supervisor (Washington). The hostage taker negotiates with the supervisor and then they end up meeting him face-to-face in the last half hour or so of the film. (I will not spoil the plot entirely but it is predictable, very predictable!)

Every single hostage movie cliché seems to have made its way into this script. (There was an earlier version of this film in 1974, which I admit I have not seen but many think is much better than this version.) Here we have a brave passenger, who gives up his life to save another passenger, as well as the worried wife of an unlikely hero (Denzel). Then there are the bad guys with the usual bad guy motives. The whole story seems to plod along and end up exactly where you “know” it will go.

The director, Tony Scott, uses quick and unusual camera shots. Some were very off-putting to me. I have not seen a lot of Tony Scott’s work but I find his style visually distracting. One weekend review said of Tony Scott’s style: “It is also possible that since the story was so weak, the camera effects did nothing but emphasize it even more.”

The real buzz here is Denzel Washington vs. John Travolta. Some loved seeing the two side-by-side and some hated it. Many critics find Travolta less than convincing in his role. I personally like both men as actors but Denzel, for my money, is maybe the most gifted male actor of our time. He wears well and still seems to be able to play almost any role in a convincing and appealing way. I think he nails this role, which is why I enjoyed a movie that I found filled with major flaws. Travolta is not as dynamic but I think he does a better than average job as the bad guy, especially in the last twenty minutes or so.

Denzel has that rare ability to make you really get into his character. And his speaking skills, diction and delivery are superb, line-for-line, in almost every instance. Denzel really gets the hero role in this movie. I enjoy him in such a role. (I even like him when he is a bad guy.)

Actors who play the bad guy role clearly have a tougher sell. They must not only convince us that their character is credible but they must prompt us to identify with them at some emotional level. I felt nothing for Travolta’s character, not even contempt. This may be the result of a bad script but the actor didn’t add a lot to make himself reach the audience at any human level.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is not a great movie! It is another “summer flick” for fun, thus I enjoyed it. I did not expect a great movie going in but I hoped I would still enjoy it. I did and thus found it completely entertaining, something that has its own value now and then.