- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

This weekend sees the third film adaptation of John Godey’s book “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” hitting the big screen. First came the 1974 version with Walter Matthau; then there was 1998’s television remake with Edward James Olmos; and now Denzel Washington slides into the lead.

Instead of the lead character being a police officer, as in the previous installments, Mr. Washington plays train dispatcher Walter. Once a highly placed muckety-muck in the New York City transit offices, Walter’s under suspicion of having accepted a bribe in exchange for choosing one brand of rail car over the others. He happens to be working the station when Pelham 123, a Manhattan-bound train that began its journey at 1:23, is hijacked.

Ryder (John Travolta) and his band of merry men want $10 million and 1 cent for their hostages; he says the extra penny is Walter’s “commission” for brokering the exchange. A disgraced former Wall Street executive, Ryder refers to the people under his team’s guns as commodities and constantly checks on the tumbling status of the stock market as his actions are described as a terrorist attack by the media.

Like “The International” earlier this year, “The Taking of Pelham 123” attempts to tap into the nation’s anxieties about Wall Street. Unlike “The International,” “Pelham” features a compelling foil for its lead in the person of Mr. Travolta. Whereas Clive Owen and Naomi Watts were up against a megabank run by mannered, impeccably tailored cash counters, Mr. Washington’s nemesis is unhinged and unpredictable. Prone to both moments of peaceful clarity and intense violence, Ryder is a wild card.

Mr. Travolta’s wild performance is the perfect counter to the calming presence of Mr. Washington; the two bounce off each other nicely as they build rapport first over an intercom and then in person. Highlights of the supporting cast include Luis Guzman as one of Ryder’s fellow hijackers and James Gandolfini as a mayor just killing time until his successor can assume control of the city.

Mr. Gandolfini’s affect is particularly enjoyable, especially for anyone who has been around an elected official who has had his fill of the political life: The vacant stare, the annoyance with the media and the desire to push the harder parts of the job off on someone else are all there.

Solid performances can’t lift this picture above its own mediocrity, however. The plot is formulaic — hostages taken, ransom raised, complications encountered in delivering the money, a hasty escape made — and the ending obvious. Tony Scott’s annoying visual quirks, such as his step-printing technique, which smears the on-screen action into a blur, don’t help matters. This generic thriller is little more than a competently acted, if rarely memorable, time at the theater.

★★½

TITLE: “The Taking of Pelham 123”

RATING: R (violence and pervasive language)

CREDITS: Directed by Tony Scott, written by Brian Helgeland

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/thetakingofpelham123

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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