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Travolta shines in ‘Pelham.’

TRAVOLTA: In 'Pelham'.
  • TRAVOLTA: In 'Pelham'.

As a reviewer, going to the movies is always an adventure for me that's above and beyond what's going on onscreen. I'm talking close encounters of the theatrical kind: the loveliness of the way a shot is framed, or the way a screenwriter works to create mood, or the way the lighting is arranged. You know: The fancy stuff.

One of the nicest things that can happen for a reviewer is when an actor who you'd previously written off as a clown, a sell-out, a stooge or a hopeless case of self-destructive typecasting surprises you. It doesn't have to be a knock-you-back-in-your seat tour-de-force, either. Sometimes, depending on how far an actor's stock has fallen on your personal hack-o-meter, even just a well played scene or two can make a reviewer smile.

Such is the case with the new heist flick “The Taking of Pelham 123” and its co-star, John Travolta. Though I — like everybody else in the world — was stunned by Travolta's take on the iconic Vincent Vega in “Pulp Fiction,” he has squandered a lot of that capital since then with quite a bit of rampant and seemingly gleeful scenery chewing. I can't think of a film he's made since “Pulp” where I really and truly enjoyed my time in the dark with him. That all changes with “Pelham.”

Like any good villain, Travolta's role only works because he's got an equally good foil. Denzel Washington stars as Wayne Garber, a New York City Transit Authority bigwig who has recently been demoted while an investigation is conducted into whether or not he took a bribe to rubber stamp the purchase of new Japanese subway cars. Busted down to working a desk in the NYC subway system control center, Garber is on duty when Ryder and a team of men seize a subway car full of passengers, take it to a high point in the tracks where they can see police sharpshooters coming for a mile, and demand $10 million dollars from the city within one hour. What follows is a game of mental badminton between Ryder and Garber, who is the only person Ryder will deal with.

While watching an hour of two guys talking on the radio — one in a parked subway car and the other in a soulless government office — might not seem like the ingredients for a nail biting thriller, Travolta and Washington really pull it off. Their performances, coupled with some dynamite supporting roles (a semi-slimy NYPD negotiator played by John Turturro, for instance, and a whiny mayor with a sex scandal hanging over his head from James Gandolfini) and a script by “L.A. Confidential” writer Brian Helgeland turn “Pelham” from a standard clock-is-ticking thriller into a good time at the movies.    

A lot of the thanks for that has to be given to Travolta. With “Pelham,” you get to see a lot of the old “Pulp Fiction” spark — mostly because Ryder is, at heart, an angry and driven man. Travolta does angry and driven well. Give him a scene where he's supposed to be happy and/or introspective, and he'll do that thing where he juts out his chin and starts talking like his mouth is full of cotton balls. But give him a gun and a reason to kill, and he's money. Those baby blue eyes turn to ice and he sells it.

In short: “Pelham 123” turns out to be a fine specimen of the heist genre, mostly because it's more about character than it is about cash. It's definitely worth the price of a ticket if you don't mind a few blood-drenched shootouts.

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