The mayor of this post-9/11, mid-recessional city (James Gandolfini) is a Rudy/Bloomberg hybrid: He lacks the appetite for grandstanding, but not for philandering, and he's a tycoon who knows how to swim in shark-infested waters. The hapless man in the middle of the shark tank is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a dispatcher working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority; it's his job to make sure that the trains run on time. It's one of Garber's trains that gets hijacked, and it's Garber that Ryder wants to talk to.
Much of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 takes place in the claustrophobic, fluorescent-lit confines of the hijacked train, in the even-more-claustrophobic oily blackness of the subway tunnels and in the MTA control center, and much of the movie is just Garber and Ryder talking over the radio. Director Tony Scott likes a moving target, and if he doesn't have one, he makes one. His camera bobs and weaves in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and his kinetic, energetic visuals mimic the rhythms of the trains, and the way that the world looks through the windows of a moving subway car: a blur of fast movement, and flickering, zoetropelike impressions of a static tableau set in motion. Windows, and computer screens as high-tech windows, figure prominently in the look of the film, frame the action and, in rare still moments, resemble the frames of a strip of movie film. The dialogue in Brian Helgelund's screenplay fixes on the radio-mediated back-and-forth between Ryder and Garber, as each man tries to suss out the other and get a glimpse into his adversary's soul through carefully chosen words.
There are a few holes in the plot, and the ending is perhaps less plausible than all that precedes it; but The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an efficient, compelling, utterly watchable and absorbing thriller. The action is choreographed to perfection, and the filmmakers take Ryder's one-hour deadline seriously: There's no padding in this lean movie, which, allowing for some before and after, clocks in at an hour and 35 minutes. But tucked in between the movement and mishegas of the hijacking and hostage-taking, the negotiations and spasms of violence, the movie efficiently packs in a parable about greed, easy money and moral choices.
Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler keeps the movie's palette natural - which is to say, unnatural: The greenish hue of the subway car and the cool blues and hot reds of the control center dominate (Garber, with his mustard-color shirt and amber glasses, represents some kind of earthy, grounded middle). When the film is aboveground, the camera is usually flying high above - but always ready to plunge back into the subterranean darkness, because this is a movie about moral turpitude and the battle between the light and the dark, both within two men and within the soul of the City.
Ryder, down in the dark, is angry, whiny and self-righteous. He's the sort of guy who spreads pain and blame, assigning responsibility for all of his misdeeds elsewhere. It's no accident that he speaks the language of money, greed, excess and personal unaccountability. Travolta deftly balances Ryder on the sharp edge of insanity; he is predictable and rational, but only because he is brutally cunning and does exactly what he says he will do no matter how insane it is. Washington's Garber is no saint; he's worked his way through the ranks of the Transit Authority from motorman to supervisor, but appears to be working his way back down following his own minor financial scandal. He's the quiet, stoic Everyman here - to contrast with Travolta's hyperbolic, voluble kvetcher. Ryder fixates on what he has in common with Garber, as well as with the mayor, who is mired in a career-imploding marital scandal.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 boils down to this question: What's the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? Is it luck? Choices? Temperament? Character? Garber's got something essential - moral fiber, perhaps - that Ryder lacks. Whatever it is, it's the reason Garber is on the side of right (most of the time, anyway) and Ryder isn't, and why Ryder has to warm himself in a cloak of righteousness and Garber doesn't. And that's as timely (and timeless) a story as any in tumultuous times like these.