Why does Tony Scott make movies? I like to imagine that the director of “DAcjAÿ Vu” and “Domino” was raised by staunchly ascetic parents, who wore all black and spent much of his childhood vacationing in the white expanses of Antarctica, which could explain the director's need to fill movie screens with incessant motion, big violence and kaleidoscopic color saturation. Maybe they just beat him a lot.
As employed in “The Taking of Pelham 123,” another thriller in which a large city falls under the hand of mastermind criminals demanding ransom, the Tony Scott style might be described as a scale model of New York blown out of Michael Bay's nose. Even if the script calls for two characters to simply talk on a street corner, Scott must circle the camera around them, again and again, a fairly extreme end to looking at terrorist negotiations from all angles. So distracting is Scott's preening, empty direction, the best one can say is that it's noticeable, to the point that it tries to strangle an otherwise decent action flick.
“Pelham” begins with the hostage taking aboard a subway train by a grim and beefy guy named Ryder (John Travolta) and, of course, his scary associates. How scary? You name a piece of body art and one of them has it. Ryder contacts the Metro Transit Authority headquarters and speaks with one Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, who seems resigned to spending his later years in minor action movies), an authority lifer and department head recently demoted to dispatch in a prime example of the movie's unnecessarily circuitous thinking.
Why can't Walter just be a cop, as Walter Matthau was in the 1974 original? Why does Ryder give Walter an hour time limit to deliver the $10 million, then order him to come down and hand off the money himself? You'll find out, but only after being quarantined and harassed a little longer than the hostages.
There are at least two distinct feels to “Pelham,” which might be an inevitable result of the trend to make movies around tables instead of behind cameras. As penned by veteran screenwriter Brian Helgeland, part of it is solid, enjoyable summer entertainment, with pacing that's sometimes ponderous and sometimes frisky, and an array of characters that are sometimes nonspecific and sometimes surprisingly original. John Turturro is especially good as a police detective who overcomes his initial suspicion of Walter. James Gandolfini plays an anti-Giuliani mayor. Washington, staying true to his character's assertion that he's “just a guy,” keeps his head down while turning in a satisfactory if unremarkable performance.
There's also a side to “Pelham” that is pure cheese — enjoyable, perhaps, but only on the less-than-fully gratifying level of laughing at the movie, not with it. The frequent use of the freeze-frame is but one wonderful example. Scott employs the venerable staple of '80s music videos as a countdown reminder, which threatens to break into the action at any moment, and often does, arriving with an ominous “bong” sound. Intended to heighten the suspense, it only reminded me, by the third or fourth time at least, of the old stage bit by Dane Cook, where he repeatedly ended terrible jokes by turning quickly to an off-stage camera with a look of frightened confusion. I don't necessarily recommend either, but this time it is much, much funnier, however unintentional.
Or maybe the humor is intentional, an inside joke; it can be difficult to tell these days. Travolta, who has a flair for taking his roles over the top, could be Scott's partner in crime in this regard. Fake neck tats and military shades aside, it's simply impossible to take him seriously as a crazed criminal killer, a fact he frequently seems to be playing up as his character takes unnatural pleasure in his own craziness.
It's a wonder the backers of “Pelham” paid good money to a hack like Scott when any scrub out of New York University presumably could have implemented the dozens of cameras and the Ginsu editing needed to make “Pelham” with equal competence. But such questions only lead to more. Why bury what should be a simple psychological thriller under a cityscape of traffic pileups, computer graphics and nutty camerawork? Why remake an obscure cult classic in the first place, only to turn it into a common contemporary action movie? Why hire Travolta to do anything? Only Scott knows. (R) 95 min. HHHII S