Denzel Washington as Walter Garber
John Travolta as Ryder
James Gandolfini as the Mayor
John Turtorro as Camonetti
Luis Guzmán as Phil Ramos
Ramon Rodriguez as Delgado
Victor Gojcaj as Bashkim
Robert Vataj as Emri
Gbenga Akinnagbe as Wallace
Michael Rispol as John Johnson
Jason Butler Harner as Mr. Thomas
Frank Wood as Police Commissioner Sterman
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) doesn't know it yet, but he's about to have the worst day of his life. While he's busy going about his (temporary) job as a MTA dispatch operator, Ryder (John Travolta) is going about his. It just happens that Ryder's job is capturing a New York City subway train (the titular Pelham 1 2 3) and holding its occupants for ransom.
It's a pretty good recipe for a thriller, which is probably why this is the third time "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" has been made in the 26 years since Morton Freedgood's novel was originally published. Ryder threatens to kill a hostage every minute after his 1 hour deadline for a $10 million ransom isn't met. It keeps the film counting down in a tight, almost real-time format as everyman Garber is put into the position of ad hoc hostage negotiator, trying to buy time as the city government tries to get a hold of the situation.
This sort of thing by design has to devolve into two guys talking on a phone, which doesn't on the face of it sound like it would be at all involving. If it's got any chance of working it requires strong actors to bring their characters to life, which is probably where "Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" succeeds best.
Denzel Washington, in his fourth collaboration with director Tony Scott ("Man on Fire"), is probably the best choice for this type of role, bringing a natural mixture of gravitas, competence and earnestness that it has to have to work. He's a man doing the best he can in an impossible situation, and he's willing to do what he's got to, even if it means airing all his dirty laundry in public.
On the other end of that line is Travolta, who is anything but quiet and earnest, an ex-con hostage taker who's not entirely what he seems. That said, this kind of over-the-top, scenery chewing role really plays to his strength, as he badgers Garber, trying to keep him off balance and pressuring him to stay on his time-table.
It helps that Scott has left some of his recent experimentation behind to focus more on the story itself, and you can never go wrong that way. There are a few wrong steps here and there--a tendency to use slow motion when he's trying to express speed and motion--but for the most part he's focused on Brian Helgeland's ("L.A. Confidential") and uncredited David Koepp's ("Spider-Man") script. It's a generally tight screenplay that doesn't entirely spell things out for the audience, especially in its characterization like Ryder's inability to take responsibility for his own actions. There's a lot of the usual stop-and-start pacing, making room for characterization then back to plot, but it works. It's also fairly balanced to its supporting characters, like James Gandolfini's mayor, without spending too much time on them. There are a few silly missteps here and there, especially with a girlfriend watching the whole thing on her laptop.
It's probably not as good as the original, but "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" is a decent diversion for a little while, thanks to a good cast that do just what's needed to keep things rolling along.