My buddy, Audie (who by the way is also a world-class blues harmonica player), graciously sent us an extremely intellectual and well-written review of Tony Scott’s latest. I don’t know about you, but I like the cut of his jib…
Man, does this movie have a bad plot. I should clarify that. The latter half of the movie, when Ryder’s (John Travolta) supreme hijacking plan is revealed in its entirety and all the pieces of the puzzle are put together, the final product is so illogical that one can’t helping thinking the puzzle was better left unsolved. It tries and somewhat succeeds at being a slick popcorn flick (but with too much slick camera work, unfortunately) with a snappy script that has an unexpected amount of verbal humor. It’s probably not going to be the worst movie released this summer, but that’s not really saying much.
The movie opens with Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) working as a dispatcher in a transit control facility in New York City. He was the assistant director of the transit system, but he was busted down for bribery-related shenanigans, and he’s trying to clear his name and get his former position back. Down in the subway, Ryder and his gang hijack the Pelham 123 subway train, hold eighteen passengers hostage and give the transit authorities one hour to bring them ten million dollars before they start killing hostages. From there on, the story proceeds as expected for this type of movie: Garber and Ryder converse over the subway intercom and form a weird sort of bond, the police and mayor show up, Garber meets Ryder and he ultimately has to decide if he will kill Ryder or be killed himself.
That description probably makes the movie seem more tense than it actually is. Oddly enough, the film’s main strength is also one of its biggest weaknesses. The script is pretty funny, and Denzel Washington’s low-key performance is perfect for the style of humor in the film and is a good foil against Travolta’s manic, pseudo-profound, grandiose, f-bomb-dropping performance (basically a direct copy of his performance in Swordfish). But the movie is supposed to be a thriller and humor ultimately sabotages whatever tension the film tries to create. Washington’s laid-back character doesn’t help drum up any tension either. His reaction to the events of the movie ranks barely above comatose. It seems like he couldn’t care less about the fate of the passengers on the Pelham. He’s ultimately the wrong type of character to be in a thriller. Funny, but wrong.
If the actors under perform, the cinematographer is a frantic overachiever. Just about every camera trick is here and accounted for: slow-motion, fast-motion, low frames-per-second, colored lighting, swirling cameras around actors, shaky hand held cams, low-angle cams, and, most of all, the dreaded jump cut (probably devised by the government in an evil plot to give every person in America ADD). The whole thing comes off like an announcer screaming and cheering at a golf tournament: Something exciting must be going on, but hell if I can figure out what it is.
The rest of the review has major spoilers for those who care, so if you’re going to see it you should stop at this paragraph. Go to the theater, watch it, have some laughs, but whatever you do, don’t really think about it afterward. Just enjoy it for what it is and don’t analyze it much, because that’s when it really starts falling apart.
In the latter half of the film, Ryder’s motivations and past finally become known. It turns out that he was a Wall Street fund manager who went to jail for fraud and stealing millions from his clients. He was supposed to get three years, but the judge gave him a full ten years because he didn’t return two million of the cash he stole. So, in jail, he hooked up with some people who just happened to be former employees of the railway system and fleshed out his hijacking plot with the ultimate goal of….
Crashing the stock market. Huh? See, he’s got this brilliant scheme to take the two million he didn’t return (Which, by the way, is ludicrous in and of itself. Who trades that amount of money for seven years? That’s a full tenth of the average human lifespan extra behind bars for a fraction of what he could have made on Wall Street after he got out.) and invest it in gold, which, you all probably know from all those TV and radio commercials concerning it, tends to go up in value as the stock market goes down and uncertainty in the market goes up. So Ryder is apparently a smart guy and everything, and the best way to affect the stock market that he can think of is to hijack a subway train and hold eighteen people hostage. Doesn’t that seem a little tame for someone who’s trying to basically crash the US economy? I can think of a few things that would have more impact on the stock market than what he did: flying a plane into a building, bombing a building, hijacking a subway train with a bomb, killing a head of state, slowly working his way up the corporate ladder to the top of a big company (you know, in the seven extra years he would have if he weren’t an idiot) and then crashing it into the ground or hell, kicking a puppy in front of a group of Catholic school kids.
But sure enough his plan works and it works big. Ryder brought his laptop down in the subway with him so we all get to see what the stock market is doing in real time. By the end of the hour the stock market has dropped over a thousand points and his two million dollar investment into gold is worth three hundred million. If my math is correct, over the course of the hour gold climbed to one hundred and fifty times its previous value because a guy hijacked a subway train. Right. And the value of gold doubled because I just dropped a brick into a McDonald’s toilet and didn’t flush. Gold is weird like that.
And I haven’t even hit on all the dumb and contrived parts of the story, (wait until you see the accidental rat-related sniper killing that happens about halfway through) but I think I think you get the point. I’ll give it two stars out of five for funny moments and an entertaining and profane messiah mode Travolta.
2 stars out of 5
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