Brought to you by the same guys who made the poster for Unstoppable.
Sometimes I hate myself. You know what I mean because you've felt that way too (not about me, about yourself. I mean, you might hate me, I don't know). You have, on purpose and sans irony, watched a movie you knew wasn't going to be very good, that you weren't going to enjoy. Usually I have a "good" reason to punish myself like this: TheAvod. But not this time.
No, this time I elected to watch The Taking of Pelham 123 because it was available. Because once, long ago in a haze of optimism, I thought it might be passable. Sounded exciting enough: John Travolta takes a New York subway car hostage. I've liked hostage movies in the past. I even liked Hostage. Critics didn't really care for Pelham as a whole, or John Travolta's excessive performance in particular (looked to me like he was having fun, although I suspect he was the only person on set who was enjoying himself). And still I pressed play on a movie I knew no one liked.
Depending on how you look at it, I both was and wasn't disappointed. Pelham lived up to expectations, is what I'm saying. It stinks. What I assume is supposed to be a tense thriller plays out like a badly paced action movie. I think it all happens in real time, too. I can't be sure because I can't be bothered to look it up. Here's the plot, such as it is:
John Travolta hijacks a subway train and holds the straphangers hostage for ten million dollars. The city has one hour to pay up. In the subway control centre is Denzel Washington, a big shot who's currently under investigation for bribery. Denzel just happened to be working the mic when Travolta rang with his demands. The city coughs up the dough and, for reasons that aren't worth explaining, Denzel has to deliver the money. There's a chase, a face-off (ha!), and then the movie's over.
Can you believe this is based on a book? It's also a remake. Think about that.
Now think about this: The Negotiator. I'm serious. Think about it. The Negotiator is a lot like Pelham, only it does a much better job blending intrigue with action; there's a lot of talking punctuated by exciting action sequences. Pelham, on the other hand, is all talk and zero intrigue lightly peppered with a couple of bland action scenes. The worst part is the movie had so much potential, but the script is incapable of pacing its plot points and using its contrivances to its advantage.
"Is this thing on?"
For instance no time is given over to figuring out who, exactly, is holding everyone hostage. The mayor, of all people, comes up with a lead and the rest of the detective work happens off-screen. Then there's the live stream. The bad guys have jury-rigged a wifi connection in the subway tunnel and a hostage is surreptitiously skyping with his girlfriend. The whole world can see what's going on in the train car but does anyone do anything about it? No. The transit authority identifies one of the hostage takers from the feed and that's it. No attempts are made to communicate with the hostages, nor do the cops use the intel to coordinate with the SWAT team in the subway tunnel. And about that SWAT team. On no fewer than two occasions do they have an opportunity to shoot the bad guys and don't take it.
Worse still, the movie mocks itself for how stupid it is. Travolta wants ten million bucks or he's going to kill everyone. Fine. The city releases the money, and it's loaded into a cop car and race to the subway. Then comes the line, delivered with utter contempt for the delivery plan, "I hope they don't get lost." Thanks for that. Exciting driving sequence ensues which ends in a crash. But the clock's still ticking! Bring in the helicopters to take the money the rest of way! "Why didn't we just use choppers to begin with?" someone asks.
Why indeed. There's absolutely nothing on the line here. The money will get to Travolta regardless and if he shoots someone in the meantime, so what? We've already established that he's trigger happy, so there's no emotional play at work here. Also, by this point, the film has already used up its emotional goodwill by forcing the good guy to either admit to or lie about take a bribe and then treating him as another, albeit, lesser villain.
The Negotiator had the good sense to leverage Samuel L. Jackson's perceived villainy, to make it integral to the plot. Here, Denzel's bribe-taking is what demoted him to the control room and eventually made him the first point of contact for Travolta, but that's it. The film wants it to be more, to mean more for the characters and plot, but really it's just a means to an end.
An end that isn't worth the journey.