Denzel Washington in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3

Set in modern-day New York City, director Tony Scott's action-thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 finds Denzel Washington playing transit-authority executive Walter Garber, a conscientious worker and devoted family man accused of accepting bribes, and consequently - 799 WORDS TO GO!!! - demoted to the rank of dispatcher. One afternoon, while monitoring routine subway transport, Garber notices an irregular stop made by one particular train, and attempts to make radio contact with its motorman. Instead, he makes contact with the train's hijacker, a tattooed psychopath who calls himself Ryder, and - 751 WORDS TO GO!!! - is played by John Travolta. Ordering Garber to secure a ransom of $10 million, Ryder insists that he'll begin shooting passengers if his demands aren't met, and given an hour to procure the money, Garber, a hostage negotiator (John Turturro), and the city's mayor (James Gandolfini) unite to stop the - 700 WORDS TO GO!!! - madman from ... .

Oh, I'm sorry, are those interruptions irritating? Well, you'd better get used to it - gripping and entertaining though it mostly is, Scott's movie oftentimes feels like the cinematic equivalent of that opening paragraph.

Based on John Godey's novel - material that was previously adapted for director Joseph Sargent's well-regarded 1974 original - The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a taut, clever, enjoyably ludicrous contraption, buoyed by Washington's intelligent, subtle turn and Travolta's wild, hammy excess. Yet for more than half its length, the film is nearly as infuriating as it is exciting, because Scott, as usual, can't leave well enough alone, and has opted to jazz up the proceedings with a series of ill-considered flourishes that continually stop the movie (sorry) dead in its tracks.

Scott's bag of tricks should be instantly familiar to anyone who's had to sit through Déjà Vu or Domino or Man on Fire: the abrupt changes in film stock; the hyperactive (and mostly senseless) editing; the shaky, restless camerawork; the audible whoo-o-o-oosh! that accompanies even simple pan shots. (The movie's opening-titles sequence, too, is a Tony Scott cliché - a montage of urban images with the credited names dancing along to a gritty hip-hop soundtrack.) Yet incredibly, the director has come up with an even more annoying stylistic device for Pelham.

As Garber and company only have an hour to deliver Ryder's money, the film is already employing a ticking-clock narrative, and characters are frequently heard reminding one another about just how much time is left before hostages start dying. That doesn't prevent Scott, though, from routinely adding title cards that perform the exact same function; every so often, Pelham's actors will be caught in a freeze-frame - sometimes even before their mouths have closed following their last utterance - while we're shown "48 minutes until deadline," "37 minutes until deadline," "23 minutes until deadline," et cetera. Not only is this a depressing sabotage of the cast members' performance rhythms, but it serves no conceivable purpose, because it builds no intensity; anyone with a reasonably accurate internal clock, to say nothing of a wristwatch, will realize that once the hour has passed, the movie will actually continue for at least 20 minutes more. (Much as we might wish otherwise, Hollywood doesn't produce a lot of 70-minute summer blockbusters.) The title cards may as well read "23 minutes until deadline ... and another couple of reels."

And there are other, predictably Scott-ian nuisances on hand, most notably a head-scratchingly pointless, and pointlessly violent, highway race, with motorcyclists flipping headfirst into traffic and out-of-control squad cars spinning in the air. (This sequence feels like a rather perverse excuse for upping the film's stunt budget. Witnessing the needless demolition during the ransom drop-off, Gandolfini's mayor asks, "Why didn't we use a helicopter?", and no one has a good answer. Neither, I'm guessing, does Tony Scott.) The director is certainly skilled at what he does - even his loopiest excursions have momentum and display a sheen of professionalism - but someone really needs to save the man from himself; his works have become so visually pretentious and thoughtlessly busy that he no longer seems able to recognize that not every project demands the ADD-riddled "style" he brings to them.

Because despite its director trying way too hard, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is, in truth, quite a lot of fun. Graced with a smart, pungent script by Brian Helgeland (of the smashing L.A. Confidential and the underrated Conspiracy Theory), this action-flick valentine to New York City turns out to be (surprisingly) motivationally complex, and when he's not accidentally undermining the tension, Scott maintains a lively pace and delivers a more than fair number of thrills; Travolta's scenes, especially, are shot and timed with razor-sharp precision. And in a film that also finds Gandolfini, Turturro, Luis Guzmán, Michael Rispoli, and John Benjamin Hickey offering first-rate work, Washington turns in an expectedly powerful yet unexpectedly moving portrayal of an accidental hero who's far more resourceful and brave than he knew. Tony Scott might not know when to say when, but with this satisfying genre piece, he's made his first movie since 1998's Enemy of the State that I would classify as - ONE WORD TO GO!!! - good.


Olivia Yara Shahidi and Eddie Murphy in Imagine ThatIMAGINE THAT

You probably shouldn't take my word for it, because I'm the guy who kind of enjoyed Norbit, but with Imagine That, Eddie Murphy has finally made a family comedy that most adults could sit through without wanting to take their own lives. That's not the same as my saying I liked the movie, but hey, it's an improvement. In the film, Murphy plays a hotshot investment broker who learns to be a better father and blah blah blah after his daughter's security blanket begins revealing which stocks will go through the roof and which will tank, leading to loads of friendly slapstick and goofy faces made by the star, and yeah, it's all about as forced and dopey as you'd suspect. Yet while the plotting is inane and the gags are pretty weak, director Karey Kirkpatrick's outing still offers a disarming amount of charm, thanks almost entirely to the casting of seven-year-old Olivia Yara Shahidi as Murphy's tot. This sprightly and wholly unaffected young comedienne is such a natural scene-stealer that she gets you giggling even when you should know better, and her on-screen dad seems to be having a ball in her presence; for once, that beaming light-switch grin that Murphy can snap on and off at will seems genuine. Their scenes together are wonderful, and while, in the end, the movie is too formulaic and silly to be worth your time, occasional diversion is at least provided by Thomas Haden Church as an untrustworthy Native American (!), that ingratiating Role Models motormouth Bobb'e J. Thompson, and Daniel Polo as a jittery 10-year-old hopped up on Red Bull. Plus a West Wing reunion, of sorts, between Martin Sheen and Richard Shiff. Imagine that.

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