What do we do with Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, another version of John Godey’s book (also adapted in 1974 by Joseph Sargent), and an old-school picture of conventional urban crime in an era where such a thing is only understandable as terrorism? Perhaps unbelievable is what it is—and nothing more so than John Travolta’s handlebar mustache, biker-tats, shaved head, and all around manically nonchalant New York City subway hijacker. A middle-aged Caucasian urban threat no longer seems much of a threat at all, which may be why both Travolta and Denzel Washington—who is the train dispatcher on duty when Travolta takes over a Lexington Avenue local train—play disenfranchised professionals. This isn’t a picture of modern war, but of a city: Travolta’s Wall Street pro with a gun vs. Washington’s civil servant administrator with a mic and a computer screen. They used to be big and now they are small, and the city has lost its flavor; the result is that both characters are corrupt and both are likable, and Travolta is the criminal only because he is more reckless in his outrage at his life than Washington, who, as ever, remains a picture of contained energy. This unnatural similarity, which runneth over and casts New York in a pitying manner, makes for a very strange picture.
Stuck in his subway car underneath Manhattan, Travolta is photographed mugshot-like, from the front and from the sides; back in the control room, Scott's camera traces a semi-circle around Washington at his dispatch console, and we see the difference between someone throwing it all away to take a stand, and a man with a stiff upper lip trying to survive in the city with his head down. Clearly, this isn’t about crime and it isn't about terror; it isn’t even about the heist—the action is relegated to a few dead hostages, an accidental discharge, and some bad driving on the part of the police—it’s about being fed up with the quintessential American city. Handsome men are stealing to get rich or just make due; the city has lost all of its color and character (all we see are subway cars, MTA offices, a heavy police presence, and a couple crashed cars); everyone with a sense of humor seems to be a criminal—and so it is no mystery why Denzel is so buttoned down. His eye-glasses do nearly as much acting as the actor himself, a prime example of a prop doing the heavy lifting: they are the glasses of a man of character and ability better than his position in life, but glasses that keep that character and ability in check. Contrast the look of the humbled administrator to Travolta’s hilarious get-up, as if a man who comes out of prison looking like that could have ever gone into it wearing a suit and trading in the Financial District, and we have a nice pair, a very-likely and an absurdity, fighting it out first over walkie-talkies and then under the city streets. So what is worth fighting for here?
Scott’s Pelham is relatively sedate stylistically, except for its methamphetamine-induced title sequence, which promises a post-post-modern view of a city that, as it turns out, is no longer interesting enough to justify. Compare, if you will, the Las Vegas-inspired Domino, Mexico City-inspired Man on Fire, and New Oreleans post-Katrina-inspired Déjà Vu, and The Taking of Pelham seems an experiment in relative calm from this maestro, perhaps a mark towards the staid setting (train car, control booth), but more interesting if linked to the city and the men it has brought up. With this quiet (not real quiet, mind you, but Tony Scott Quiet), the film—even with its laughs, which are surprising and several—is a solemn, almost old-man affair, something beleaguered and rife with dissatisfaction. Scott’s zig-zagging sense of fantasy and extravagance is brought out not by editing or camerawork, but only in John Travolta, who seems some kind of hefty imp, an expressionist figure erupted from the psyche of button-downed Denzel. While Scott keeps his stylistic expressionism relegated to his flattened compositions and beautiful colorwork under the streets of New York and in control room of the MTA which is dominated by a huge color abstraction of the city's subway status, Travolta gets to run his mouth in a superb combination of gleeful abandon and erratic, unmitigated rage. He is the man Washington might want to be, in his dreams, a cackling demon of frustrated mischief come alive, birthed in the subway and struggling to emerge into daylight. That the film's final showdown is so small and unspectacular points only towards the likelihood that the entire film is nothing but a small personal struggle for a single man. Finally, then, our seemingly dated urban crime makes sense: apparently, in New York, personal struggles manifest themselves through a just-another-day-in-the-city, including but not limited to hijackings that expose and test frustrated residents. Which may explain the terrific, cheese-ball freeze-frame final shot: empowered by personal heroics, honored by the mayor himself, Denzel is simply glad to be home, another day over—and he even remembered the milk!