June 11, 2009 at 1:12 am

Tom Long: Film Review: 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3' -- GRADE: B

Rock-solid characters, thrills drive 'Pelham 1 2 3'

Denzel Washington in the thrilling "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." (Stephen Vaughn)

'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" is a near-perfect summer entertainment thriller that shows good story, good director and good actors trump gaudy special effects any day.

Much of the credit here has to go to director Tony Scott, who has shown a consistent gift over the years -- in "Top Gun," "Crimson Tide," "Enemy of the State" -- for blending modern machinery and technology into a story while still developing characters that can make a thriller come alive.

The central character is played by Denzel Washington, who has worked successfully  with Scott three previous times ("Crimson Tide," "Man on Fire," "DéjÀ Vu"). It's to both men's credit that Washington plays completely different characters in each of their collaborations; these guys aren't making sequels, they're making movies that work.

Opposite Washington is John Travolta, in his best role in a decade, chewing things up as a sort of slightly mad, giggling-monster bad guy. It's the type of thing he hasn't done since he devoured the screen in "Face/Off" and you have to wonder why because he's so darn good at it.

Washington plays Walter Garber, a top official in the New York subway system who's been demoted to hands-on control of day-to-day action. While juggling the myriad trains racing beneath the streets he notices one -- the Pelham 1 2 3 -- has inexplicably stopped in mid-run and disconnected most of its cars.

That's because a mysterious gunman who calls himself Ryder (Travolta) and a handful of accomplices have taken over the train. They are now holding about a dozen people hostage and demanding $10 million from the city of New York. They want the money in one hour, or they will begin shooting a hostage a minute. And they're making these demands through Garber, since he was their first contact through the train's communications system. And so begins a symphony of tension and release, with Scott orchestrating everything from a mad race across town to deliver the cash to a hidden Internet video feed to building suspicions about who Ryder is and what he really wants.

But for all the surrounding circus, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (working off the original John Godey novel, which was first made into a film in 1974) keep the focus on the growing relationship between Garber and Ryder. It's established early that Ryder is himself not without sin; the human side of Ryder is all hints and leaks and sudden outbursts of frustration.

Also working in the film's favor is a bit of empathy for the sorts of characters who usually get little, most notably John Turturro as the hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini (in his third film with Scott) as the mayor of New York.

As good as it is, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" doesn't try to be anything beyond what it is, a crackling good, live-wire tension contest between two well-carved characters. And as such, it rocks.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com, (313) 222-8879

John Travolta has his best role in years as the leader of subway hijackers. (Stephen Vaughan / Columbia Pictures)
Denzel Washington, left, plays a dispatcher and James Gandolfini plays the ...
Denzel Washington plays a disgraced former subway official who goes up ...