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Cinema Signal: Go! Strong appeal for action and character fans.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
by John Godey

(In Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Taking of Pelham 123"

The subtle way in which two men are extracted from a teeming city to become key players in a force-of-will drama will always draw directors who focus on character. Director Tony Scott fulfills that need by harnessing screenwriter Brian Helgeland's ("Mystic River") adaptation of Morton Freedgood's novel (writing under the pen name John Godey) with an upgraded subway ticket aboard Pelham 123, a crazed and screeching powerhouse of a ride. He grippingly turns up the voltage on the oppositional thrust between two unlikely strangers in a killing spree extortion standoff.

This is a tenser rail ride than the Coney Island Cyclone!

Of the two men, one is pure crazy--the kind of sociopath who will end a human life in order to secure his payoff which, in this case, is a ten million dollar ransom. To the icy and ruthless Ryder (John Travolta), killing the people who he and his gang trapped in their train-jacked cars bothers him less than wooden pawns sacrificed to win the game. He fully knows the value of his inhumanity in bartering for a pile of money.

Who would be a more natural person aboveground to first understand what's going on with the train, to consider the possibilities, and to apply a process of troubleshooting elimination than the guy watching the underground map of the rails, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), the dispatcher? He's the keeper of routines (his own and well as the trains'), modest train system employee whose primary aim in life is to hold down his job and maintain his home while thinking as little as possible about a false accusation that occurred in his past.

As far as that element of his story is concerned, there had to be something in this solid citizen's history to give him a fellow-criminal comfort level that would endear him to the guy calling the shots at the point of a gun.

Ryder is a criminal with enough experience to know that time is of the essence during the execution of a crime, and there's nothing like a deadline and a killing to give his extortion demands traction. But ten million's a bundle for the city to raise and, with the mayor, the transit chief and the cops getting into the game, it doesn't take long before pandemonium, of the sort crazy Ryder could care less about, sets in. And, then, there's the city itself, and the challenge of having to transport bundles of currency across town before another New Yorker is shot. The clock is ticking.

Fortunately, Camonetti (John Turturro), a hostage negotiator quickly brought in to deal with Ryder, recognizes the dispatcher's modest and calm demeanor that has already established a soothing tone of reason with the criminal. For his part, Ryder is attracted by the man at the microphone's straight talk and apparent honesty, which he continually tests. The man is more than a stereotype in that there's a mind with the capacity of being stimulated, if not momentarily side-tracked, by the right stranger. Walter is endearing himself to us with a clearly seen pragmatism and courage he doesn't seem to be aware of.

Walter's supervisor arrives and, not liking that his dispatcher has been so spotlighted while in the company of all the participating city officials, having no sense of how crucial Walter has become in the negotiation, dismisses him for the day. But Ryder hasn't dismissed him and when he finds out that Walter is on his way home, refuses to talk to anyone else. Walter is frantically recalled, and becomes obliged to trade himself for a few of the captured passengers.

Which ultimately satisfies the need for these two opposites to directly confront one another--a development that will see our peace-loving hero armed and immersed in activities way beyond his experience and pay grade.

The durable style of drama that comes down to a two-man confrontation is one of the basic conflicts in literature. Examples of the sub-genre might include the purity of a two-man cast such as in "Sleuth" to a wider range of hostage vs. negotiator, captive vs. captor, hunter vs, prey, detective vs. criminal, lawyer vs. accused and other mind games in a battle of will and wits. "Marathon Man," "The Defiant Ones," "Duplicity" come to mind.

Despite what one might think of the overall perfection or lack thereof in this New York thriller, two things are evident. The tension and suspense are under tight control. And, the two leads are at the top of their game. It may not be such a stretch for Travolta to play such pure malevolence since he established those creds in such items as "The Punisher," "Be Cool," "Swordfish" and others. His distorted criminal intellect deriving, presumably, from a cutthroat life on the streets and a penitentiary or two is consistent with the planning of the operation and the psychopathic daring required.

Washington, however, takes us to new territory in the depiction of an everyman who all of us would be glad to buy a beer or trust with our firstborn. He's the Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger III of U.S. Airways/Hudson River fame, a man with the quiet instincts and unheralded mastery of his craft who rises to a near impossible occasion and accomplishes a feat. Washington delivers a Walter who's humanity and personality fuse into an instinct for communicating with a cold killer with straight talk and homespun pragmatism.

Not to belabor the point with my gushing praise, but Washington shows more and more that he's one of those rare actors with the gift of understanding the subtleties of a character that work for the story, and create it. This is a craftsman who comes to work, not just a personality who's "right" for the part. If you come to see "Pelham 123" for no other reason, come to see his Walter.

In a fourth collaboration with Scott, ("Crimson Tide," "Man on Fire" and the tense "Deja Vu"), this is a further demonstration of how skillful this actor can be, and the possibilities when director and actor mesh so creatively.

In case you haven't noticed, the Scott brothers, Tony and Ridley ("Gladiator"), are exactly those kinds of directors whose output is all about character and literate standards in filmmaking.

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Both John Turturro and James Galdonfini are held in check so as not to overdo their respective roles as the official hostage negotiator and Mayor of the city, affording them some slight dimension beyond the stereotypes in the skein of a city in hostage.

Production values are tops, with special contributions from editor Chris Lebenzon and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler. A dynamically paced score is by Harry Gregson-Williams.

Bottom line, the intelligence of the screenplay and two masterful performances at the film's center engage us with the thrill of a penetrating psychological contest that keeps us magnetically attached to our seats throughout the escapade.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Denzel Washington is Walter Garber.
Rising to the occasion.

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