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Take This Train

By Elvis D'Silva
August 27, 2009 10:02 IST
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John TravoltaTony Scott, brother of Ridley, creator of cinematic testosterone fests that helped finance the future of Quentin Tarantino and paved the way for the jock cinema of Michael Bay, released a new movie this year.

The man is sixty-five and still makes movies so energetic that people half his age are left breathless from the rush of colour and sound. Since Man On Fire in 2004 he has adopted a distinctive style of filmmaking that was informed by two short films he made in the time leading up to that Mexico-set film. Those shorts -- Agent Orange and Beat The Devil -- are such exhilarating examples of motion picture invention that I find no reason to complain that Mr Scott (Junior) continues to want to play in that sandbox.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an update/remake of the 1974 movie starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw which was itself based on a book by John Godey. It begins with sounds (because a specific sound design has become an important part of the movies that Mr Scott has made since 2004) and when the picture opens we are in New York. This version of the Big Apple, even when seen from the air, has green-gold highlights and really deep shadows. The distinctive riff from Jay-Z's seminal track 99 Problems blares out and we are off.

The plot is simple. Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, the dispatcher on duty when a group of armed men led by Ryder (John Travolta) take a New York subway train (and several passengers) hostage inside the labyrinthine subway system. Ryder's demand is simple -- unless he receives ten million dollars for the hostages, within one hour, he plans to execute a hostage a minute, for every minute the city delays payment on the ransom demand. It is a difficult situation for Garber to be in, since he is not qualified for the job of negotiating with hostage takers and also because there is a certain amount of hostility towards him within the office because he is under investigation for having taken a bribe.

Denzel WashingtonNow a setup like this can be fraught with danger for several reasons. If that time limit is not played with properly, audiences could find their patience tested by an hour's worth of procedural nonsense about locating the mayor (James Gandolfini), installing a professional hostage negotiator (John Turturro) to deal with the hostage takers, deciding whether or not to pay the money, trying to get the money there on time, so on and so forth. And who wants that?

This is a movie that stars Vincent Vega and Malcolm X for crying out aloud! We want to watch them duke it out. The rest of it is gravy. Clearly the filmmakers understood that because they placed Washington and Travolta front and centre in this movie. Though most of their communication is over the radio, it is gripping stuff. Sort of like a chess match where the players can't see each other and the bad guy is the only one who knows how to play the game.

Also, the rules of the game are not set in stone, quite like the world we find ourselves living in today. Promises are not made to be kept. Deadlines are moved and more often than not they are moved forward. There are always casualties, and like so many movies in recent times, even the good guys are not totally blameless.

It helps if you are (or have recently become) a fan of Tony Scott's style of filmmaking. It helps even more if you enjoy watching Denzel Washington play another character that Will Smith could never pull off. Most of all it helps if you like watching movies where the makers clearly took a certain visceral pleasure in its making so that the people watching it could feel the urgency of the situation as well as the stacking up of the odds as time passes.

This is not a perfect film, or even Tony Scott's best film in recent years (that would have to be his previous effort Deja Vu) and as happens in most movies where ensembles are involved, several characters have little to do other than be background noise in a story that is essentially a confrontation between two guys. Sure the mayor and the hostage negotiator have roles to play but when all is said and done, this could be a stage play featuring just two characters and it would work just as effectively -- sort of like an acoustic version of a heavy metal song.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a brawny thriller with style to spare. It is the kind of movie that makes you walk with an added swagger when you leave the theatre, or maybe that just happens to me. Either way, I'd like to see this one again. And that is my ultimate measure for a movie these days.

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Elvis D'Silva