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Denzel and Travolta Take Manhattan

Jun. 14 2009, Updated 11:45 a.m. ET

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John Travolta can be amazing (Pulp Fiction) or totally embarrassing (Battlefield Earth). But teamed up with Denzel Washington, who can read the phone book and be captivating, Travolta elevates his game.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of a 1974 cult classic, has a mediocre plot and would have been pretty lame with any two other actors in the lead roles. But Denzel and Travolta’s performances — and a few hyped-up, amped-up car crashes — make this movie, directed by action God Tony Scott, a must-see.

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Denzel is Walter Garber, an ordinary MTA subway dispatcher, who unwittingly becomes a hostage negotiator after a mercurial gang leader named Ryder (Travolta) hijacks a train and threatens to execute passengers unless he gets $10 million within an hour.

As the hot-headed Ryder, Travolta could have chewed up the scenery, but his psychopath is surprisingly restrained and complex. And the cool thing about Denzel is that even though you know you’re watching Denzel, you still believe that he is this wimpy character, who is suspicious because you find out he’s being investigated on a bribery charge. Denzel even has a little paunch around the middle. Not sure if he did that for the role or just ate too many cheeseburgers, but it works. Tony Soprano, er, James Gandolfini, is also awesome playing the anti-Giuliani mayor of NYC.

Now, there are some problems with Pelham. Ryder’s vengeful reason for causing all this murder and mayhem is kind of ridiculous. There are some Bruce-Willis-y comic relief moments that seem a little inappropriate considering people are being violently shot and killed. And, most importantly, in real life, as New Yorkers know, the incompetent lazy bastards at the MTA would never be able to handle a crisis like this within an hour, let alone a year.

But if you can suspend belief, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is an intense, suspenseful ride and as electrifying as a third rail.

4 Radars

(Photo: ZUMA Press / Columbia Pictures)

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