Taking of Pelham 123, The (United States, 2009)

June 11, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Taking of Pelham 123, The Poster

The Hollywood remake train continues unabated, racing through signals as it dives underground into New York City's subways. At least it can be said that this, the third version of The Taking of Pelham 123 (following the 1974 feature and a 1998 made-for-TV movie), accomplishes the aim of a good remake: remaining faithful to the spirit of the source while offering a fresh perspective on the material. To his credit, director Tony Scott (working with a script by Brian Helgeland) does not attempt to transform the story, which is essentially a psychological thriller, into an action film. The movie is light on pyrotechnics and special effects and, except for a preposterous climax, surprisingly low-key. The production, at least until it deviates from the previously established template and turns ridiculous, is gripping and compelling, and doesn't make us wish we had checked our brains at the theater entrance.

The Taking of Pelham 123 dispenses with anything resembling setup. By the time the opening credits have finished, the sociopath who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta), aided by his gang of three (Luis Guzmán, Victor Gojcaj, Robert Vataj), has taken over subway train Pelham 123 and is holding 18 passengers and the conductor hostage. It doesn't take him long to make his demands known; these are delivered to the dispatcher unlucky enough to be on duty: Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who is facing suspension for suspicion of taking a bribe. Ryder's requirements are succinct: he wants $10 million in 60 minutes or he'll start killing the hostages one-by-one. No delays. No tricks. When hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) tries to take over for Walter, Ryder reacts violently. Meanwhile, the Mayor (James Gandolfini), nearing the end of his term and relishing the coming nirvana of retirement, inserts himself into the growing mess of negotiating with Ryder.

This version of The Taking of Pelham 123 is more about the relationship that develops between Ryder and Walter. Unlike in the 1974 movie, in which Walter Matthau played the negotiator, Walter is not a cop and there is a stain on his record. Travota's Ryder is more of a manipulator than Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue. These two fence with each other and try to get into each other's minds. Gone from the film are indications of disharmony within the criminal gang. Ryder's background is sketched out but the line drawing is never completed. A few domestic scenes of Walter speaking to his wife on the phone enhance his ordinariness and humanity. Ultimately, The Taking of Pelham 123 is intended to highlight how a normal person, working a 9-to-5 job, can be placed in a position where he has the chance to do something heroic.

With James Gandolfini playing the Mayor, the Abe Beame-inspired caricature has been replaced by someone more forceful and proactive. Turturro's character, a professional hostage negotiator, is added to heighten the drama within the control room. Initially antagonistic toward Walter, especially once he learns about the bribery allegation, Camonetti eventually ends up in lock-step with him. Friction between Walter and his boss (played by Michael Rispoli, who, like Gandolfini, is a Sopranos alum) adds another layer of tension. It's interesting to note that, in the 1974 picture, the conflict was aboard the train as Blue fought to control his small band of thugs. In 2009, it's in the control room.

One small annoyance to be found in The Taking of Pelham 123 is Scott's characteristic "artistic" amping up of certain camera shots: blurs, slow-motion, swish-pans, etc. These are more distracting than effective, calling attention to the director's too-obvious attempts to insert calling cards into the proceedings. Thankfully, their use is limited (at least in comparison with some of Scott's previous films). More damaging is the re-worked climax which not only deviates from the simple, effective endgame of the 1974 film, but does so with the most trite of clichés: the chase scene.

As Walter, the aging, overweight family man with financial troubles, Denzel Washington displays his chameleon-like ability to become whatever the director wants. Gone is the forceful presence we normally associate with the actor - Walter needs to crave anonymity, at least at the beginning. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the ending is that we're no longer watching Walter; we're seeing Denzel Washington, action hero. Meanwhile, John Travolta is playing a version of the villain he has honed over the year. More often than not, Travolta gravitates toward heroic characters, but Ryder fits nicely into the stable of creeps and psychopaths that dot Travolta's resume. He looks menacing, and that's half the battle.

Those familiar with one of the earlier versions of The Taking of Pelham 123 will find that the tune is familiar but many of the beats are different. It is remarkable how, with all of the advances in technology over the years, a story like this can remain largely unchanged despite a 35 year gap between tellings. By allowing the movie to unfold in real time, Scott enhances the level of suspense, but the masterstroke that differentiates this The Taking of Pelham 123 from its predecessors is the decision to transform the interaction between Walter and Ryder from a hostage negotiation to a chess game. And, although the checkmate is predictable, the moves that get the game to that point are not.

Taking of Pelham 123, The (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1