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It’s right on schedule

FILM CRITIC

Tony Scott is a director who makes the trains run on time. Not just the specific subway cars of his efficient thriller “The Taking of Pelham 123,” but the metaphorical trains of action movie pyrotechnics in general.

Though he’s worked somewhat in the shadow of his more thematically adventurous brother Ridley, Scott has earned his Hollywood reputation as a shooter, someone who knows how to make things move like lightning on screen.

Collaborating here with stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta, Scott puts those talents to use in this crisp, effective New York subway hostage drama. It’s not the kind of film that dominates at the Oscars, but “Pelham” is so professionally done you rarely have the luxury of taking your eyes off the screen.

From “Pelham’s” opening credits to its conclusion, you can feel Scott’s small-boy excitement (aided by Chris Lebenzon’s skilled editing and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score) at making things pop off the screen. No one takes more pleasure in the vivid display of squad cars and their squealing tires or the purposeful careening of police motorcycles.

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Because he is a shooter first and foremost, Scott is often only as good as his scripts, and his best films -- “Crimson Tide,” “Enemy of the State,” “Man on Fire” -- tend to be the ones that are based on the best-written material.

So it’s not an accident that “Pelham” has good things going for it in that department. The original source, John Godey’s 1973 novel, was the basis of an excellent film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.

And current screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who wrote Scott’s “Man on Fire,” counts both “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River” among his credits.

The fact that this is a hostage drama makes “Pelham” stand apart from most of Scott’s work, with its reliance on tension created by words, specifically the back and forth of ransom negotiations.

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So it’s fortunate that the film has stars with the ability to hold our attention even though they are almost never in the same physical space (and, in fact, didn’t even meet in the studio until the seventh week of shooting).

It’s Travolta’s Ryder we encounter first, looking malevolent as all get-out as he glides down the streets of New York sporting a Fu Manchu mustache, dark sunglasses, a wool cap pulled low on his head and a prison tattoo on his neck. “Hairspray’s” Edna Turnblad this is not.

Ryder and his team of miscreants are headed for a rendezvous at a train on the Lexington Avenue line, the Pelham 123 to be specific, filled with ordinary New Yorkers who have no idea they are on the way to subway hell.

Ryder’s opposite number, looking as menacing as a grilled cheese sandwich, is soft and paunchy subway dispatcher Walter Garber, played by Washington as the kind of guy who wears a bib napkin while eating lunch at his desk.

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This type of hesitant role is a change for Washington, but as an actor who drips charisma just sitting in a chair, he is well within his comfort zone.

While Garber is busy spilling coffee on himself, Ryder and his gang are commandeering that subway car and its 19 hostages and calling in their ransom demand: $10 million (up from the $1 million in the 1974 film) to be delivered within an hour, or else people are going to die.

It’s pure happenstance that Garber gets the call, but Ryder, with that quirkiness common to movie psychopaths, takes a shine to the guy and refuses to share his deep thoughts like “we all owe God a death” with anyone else.

Ryder won’t talk to ace NYPD hostage negotiator Vincent Camonetti (John Turturro); he’ll barely talk to the mayor (an excellent James Gandolfini). It’s Garber or nobody, and so the dance between unexpected antagonists begins.

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The third star of “Pelham” is the venerable New York City subway system. Anchored by strong work by cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, the crew filmed on the subway for four weeks, the most extensive shoot there ever, and the result is formidably convincing.

It almost goes without saying that “Pelham” has its problems, including some clunky plot elements and a phenomenal amount of coincidence. But faced with these difficulties, the film does what a good hostage negotiator does: It distracts us from what’s going wrong and pulls us into the story. Films that can do that are few and far between, and getting fewer, so when this one pulls into the station, feel free to get on board.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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‘The Taking of Pelham 123'

MPAA rating: R for violence and pervasive language

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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Playing: In general release


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