Thrill of the chase
Interplay between Travolta and Washington highlights subway-hijack film
John Travolta has still got chops. It’s time to put Hairspray in the past and remember the dirtier, grittier Travolta we grew to love in Pulp Fiction.
In Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, he plays Ryder, a man with a plan to take over a New York City subway car. His mutton chops are long and his ’stache even longer. A tattoo on his neck shows he’s no-nonsense. But it’s his bad boy, confident attitude that’s so fun to watch, even when he loses his cool.
When Ryder’s plan goes into action, he gets in touch with MTA headquarters, specifically a subway dispatcher named Walter Garber (Tony Scott fave Denzel Washington). The two develop a rapport and, as these things tend to go, Ryder insists on only talking with Garber. “He has a sexy voice,” Ryder says, in one of his funnier lines.
As it turns out, no one is exactly who they appear to be. Garber, for instance, isn’t a regular on the MTA phone lines. While he says he doesn’t believe in coincidences, it is rather interesting that on this day, when he’s in a place he’s not used to being, he gets a call from “terrorists” who’ve taken over a subway train. NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti (a stone-faced John Turturro) doesn’t like the coincidence, either, and when he arrives on the scene is skeptical of Garber’s possible involvement in the scheme.
The mayor (James Gandolfini) is also pulled into the mix, as Ryder and company have requested money come directly from his coffers, in exchange for the passengers, one of whom happens to have his computer turned on and streaming live to his girlfriend when all this goes down.
The interesting thing about this hostage film is that it quickly becomes clear that Ryder is not your everyday criminal, though he looks the part. Garber, likewise, isn’t your everyday hostage negotiator—but the relationship works, and maybe that’s why. The characters, at least those who matter, are fleshed out to the point that they are seen as human—not just targets, not just good guys vs. bad guys.
Travolta, as mentioned above, is fantastic as the criminal mastermind. His character is dynamic, unpredictable at times, and just plain fun to watch. Washington, on the other hand, delivers a strong yet low-key performance, but nothing particularly memorable. The interplay between the two, however, is one of the film’s strong points.
Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is actually a remake of a 1974 film of the same name (though with numbers spelled out) starring Walter Matthau as Garber and Robert Shaw as Ryder. Be this as it may, Scott and the writers do an excellent job of updating the film, both technologically and sociologically. There’s not even a hint of 1970s in this newer film, making it clearly a story that stands the test of time.