Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Friday afternoon, I squeezed in a matinee before going to work. It was The Taking of Pelham 123, a film about a plot to hold the passengers on a New York City subway train for ransom. The movie featured Denzel Washington as a disgraced transit executive who, in a twist of fate, ends up negotiating with the head hostage-taker played by John Travolta. Also appearing are John Turturro, Luis Guzmán, and James Gandolfini as the mayor.

Directed by Tony Scott, it's a remake of a 1974 movie with a cast of comic actors and a 1998 telefilm with a cast of serious TV hams. I missed those earlier versions, but they might be interesting to compare to this film. It combines the stock gestures of an action thriller with a goodly helping of humor, a bit of claustrophobia, a puzzle with a surprise solution, and a sincere effort to bring depth to its characters.

No one is cast against type here. But I think there's a lot to be said about typecasting. When there are no big surprises in the pairing of actors and roles, the audience can instantly understand who characters are without enduring dozens of lines of tedious, expository dialogue. You can plunge right into the story without preliminaries. So, to make a virtue of this, Travolta plays his usual ice-cold killer with an explosive temper -- the better to surprise us with his dying words. Denzel gets to play a guy who doesn't find out until the last scene whether he can pull the trigger -- the better to surprise us by not being squeaky-clean. Turturro plays an expert, the better to surprise us by being mentally stable. Gandolfini plays an ego in a suit, the better to surprise us by being insightful and decent. Guzmán plays a sidekick whose sticky end isn't much of a surprise, but oh well.

No one wins big awards for playing the type of character they usually play. (Denzel, who keeps winning for playing villains, is a case in point.) But in the meantime, their skills and the audience's expectations combine to make a complex story move swiftly and smoothly.

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