The pace of terror
"Life is simple now. They just have to do what I say." Ryder (John Travolta)
No getting off this train; it is speeding out of control. So goes the "train" of the Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, both the subway train taken hostage and the breakneck pace of the film, directed by Tony Scott, who knows rapid cutting as well as dramatic speed. Ordinarily I'd complain, but the almost real time pace of negotiations for the hostages aboard the hijacked train requires the sense of urgency Scott's quick cutting underscores.
Based on the popular 1974 film version, Pelham depicts a ruthless but charming Ryder and henchmen, including Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman), taking the Pelham train hostage for $10 million. The negotiator is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), the dispatcher with a past. When Ryder and Walter negotiate, it is acting heaven: Travolta giving his bad boy with a smile full vent while Denzel keeps the lid on emotions, befitting a man in a seriously compromising situation.
Lamentable is the logistical fact that Travolta and Washington can't be together in most of the film, yet Scott does his best to keep the action taut and their interaction magnetizing. The change from 1974 to post-911 adds the sense of doom to the city, and the use of computers, right down to one secretly broadcasting the train's proceedings, enhances and modernizes. James Gandolfini as the mayor is Bloomberg/Giuliani perfect; John Turturro underplaying as the professional hostage negotiator is a smart addition to the original version.
Besides the spot-on pacing, even including blurry wipes and superimposed images, is a character study that begs for a slow up so we can better savor the richness of good guy versus bad guy between two gifted actors: Ryder struggles with a past in Catholicism and crime, Walter with the ethics of a deal he worked on for the city buying trains in Japan. If there is a theme anywhere, it is that even the best of us have a debt to pay for our sins.
But this film is about the pace of terror in one of the greatest towns on earth, and for that speed Tony Scott gets an artistic A.