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Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The

Sony Pictures // R // November 3, 2009
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jason Bailey | posted November 10, 2009 | E-mail the Author

Well, the first thing that we have to decide, in approaching Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, is that the 1974 original was what it was, and no reimagining is going to touch it. It was, first and foremost, of its time and place--it captured the gritty, trashy, dangerous hellhole of 1970s New York in much the same manner as The French Connection and Klute and Born to Win before it, Dog Day Afternoon and The Warriors and (to the nth degree) Taxi Driver after. It looks and feels and even (thanks to David Shire's brassy, pounding score) sounds like The City, right then. But it was also way ahead of its time; fourteen years before Die Hard, here was the story of a brilliant, accented baddie who took hostages in a public place and whose plans to exchange them for a large sum of cash is thwarted by a dogged, determined public servant. After Die Hard made a mint and we saw its various riffs (Die Hard on a boat, on a plane, on a bus, etc.), no one bothered to make Die Hard on a subway, because it had been done a decade and a half earlier.

Pelham was first remade as a limp TV movie in 1998; it has now been updated and thoroughly reimagined by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (whose name appears on about as many good films--L.A. Confidential, Mystic River --as bad ones--The Postman, Assassins) and director Scott, a filmmaker whose stylistic flourishes have irritated others more than me. I've got a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing--for my money, the only time he's really gone too far with his tics and affectations was Domino, which was pretty much a lousy movie any way you sliced it (so his flair felt like overcompensation). However, my stomach turned a bit as his Pelham began. The opening credit sequence utilizes blurry photography, slow and fast motion editing, and jittery camerawork--anything, it would seem, to keep us from seeing exactly what the hell is going on. Nothing terrifies Tony Scott more than a static frame. Would this finally be the movie where he went too far, even for me?

Thankfully, no. He settles down once the story gets into motion; his practice of shooting conversations like they're action scenes can get a little wearying, and sometimes you wish he'd just stop moving the damned camera and hold a shot for more than a second and a half. But he does show some restraint in the film's quiet, more contemplative moments, even if he can't resist (at the big climax) shooting a conversation from a chopper.

Say what you will about his extravagancies, but once this thing gets going, it pulls us in--the storytelling is tight, the cuts are surgically precise, and it hums right along. Walter Matthau's transit cop has been transformed into Denzel Washington's Walter Garber (first name changed in tribute to the role's originator), an MTA upper-management type who has been busted down to dispatcher while he's under investigation for taking a bribe. His day at the microphone is disrupted when a group of armed thugs, led by "Ryder" (John Travolta) take over a 6 train; they move it deep into the tunnels and disconnect the front car, while Ryder tells Garber that the city has 60 minutes to come up with $10 million, or they start popping hostages.

That ticking clock--and Ryder's clear lack of hesitation to carry out his threat--gives the picture a tremendous momentum; it spins like a top, propelling breathlessly forward and giving us a snazzy freeze-frame and on-screen text when we need a reminder of how close we are to that deadline. New York viewers will also appreciate how many of the details they get right; early in the film, when Garber is barking out an on-the-fly re-routing, the stops and trains make sense (even if on-train wi-fi access in the early scenes is still a bit of a pipe dream).

The primary divergence between Scott and Helgeland's take and the 1974 original is in the backstories of the two main characters and the relationship forged between them. Matthau and Robert Shaw were given fairly simple characterizations (hard-working cop and bitter ex-military), and their radio communications were mostly centered on the transaction at hand. An actor who so effortlessly projects Washington's strength and intelligence wouldn't quite work in the Matthau role, as originally conceived; in a fine example of tailoring the role to the actor, Washington's Garber has some flaws and real complexities. His falling-star wants to prove himself worthy here (watch the way he tentatively walks out of the command center after he's been dismissed), and creating a situation where his character has something on the line is an ingenious way of raising the stakes.

Travolta, coming off a long line of tepid projects, is clearly having a great time playing a pulpy lowlife, though he's just a wee bit over the top here--he's frequently hyper-active and bug-eyed, and he's not helped much by the fact that much of his dialogue appears to have been re-written by Bobb'e J. Thompson's character in Role Models. But is it meant to be a tough-guy "act"? How meta is this guy supposed to be? Travolta's got some good moments here, so I hesitate to call it a bad performance, per se--I don't know what the hell it is, exactly. What is certain is that Washington brings out the best in him; the scenes where they level with each other, and speak plainly, have the same kind of motivational pull as that terrific first act of Man on Fire.

The expansion of their relationship comes at the cost of the distinctive characterizations for Travolta's accomplices. The only one with any presence is Luis Guzman, and he mostly brings that with him; I'll maintain that there is no film that can't be made better by the introduction of Guzman in a supporting role, and I would say the same about co-star John Turturro, but even he couldn't help Transformers. Point is, we don't even know these guys' names (the original film gave them color coded names--Mr. Grey, Mr. Blue, etc.--but Tarantino already recycled that in Reservoir Dogs). On the other hand, the original film's thin characterization of the NYC mayor as sniveling, sick-bedded weakling is one of its weaker elements; Helgeland's more active mayor is clearly modeled on Bloomberg (down to the subway riding and one dollar annual salary), and James Gandolfini is quietly terrific in the role.

Like so many popcorn directors, Scott lets his film go a good twenty minutes too long--once the clock has ticked out, he can't maintain that energy, and the picture loses steam once it comes up out of the subway. A car chase is cut too jaggedly, to a degree that there's no spatial relationships established and therefore no suspense. And while the final confrontation is pretty damned good, it can't hold a candle to the gotcha brilliance of the original's closing line.



It shouldn't come as a surprise that a recent big-budget studio picture looks great on Blu-ray, but this 1080p/MPEG-4 encode is outstanding. Black levels are deep and rich, detail and contrast are first-rate, and skin tones are natural. Director Scott sometimes goes for a grainy, blown-out look, but it's a deliberate effect, nicely reproduced here; aside from that, color saturation is vivid and the overall look is sleek and sharp.


The Taking of Pelham 123 is talkier than your average summer action picture; the action comes in short, story-motivated bursts (as opposed to the non-stop action and carnage of, say, a Transformers movie), while the heart of the movie and the bulk of the running time lies in Washington and Travolta's dialogue scenes. Their audio is crisp and always audible, while the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is effectively used, in those scenes, to push music and environmental effects into the surround speakers. The roars of police car engines, choppers, and runaway trains in the action sequences are also well-handled by the immersive mix.

French and Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks are also available, in addition to an English audio descriptive track and a Catalan Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also offered.


The 50GB Blu-ray disc comes with two Audio Commentaries: one with director Tony Scott, the other with screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black. Both are reasonably interesting, but I'm not sure there's quite enough good material for two tracks (especially considering how much of it pops up in the featurettes); they might've been better combined into one, or recorded together.

"No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 123" (30:25) is a compelling and expertly-crafted featurette, detailing the origination of the project and the complicated production, as told by all of the major players (with the help of a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage). "The Third Rail: New York Underground" (16:15) covers the ins and outs of the New York subway system, as conveyed by the film's MTA liaisons, technical advisors, and cast and crew, and how the logistical challenges of shooting there. The cumbersomely-titled "From the Top Down: Stylizing Character with Danny Moumdjian, The Lab Salon" (5:17) is a profile of the film's hair stylist, with input by Scott on the importance of that job; it's pretty disposable. "Marketing Pelham" (7:04) collects the film's trailers, while additional Sony Previews are also included.

The disc is also BD-Live enabled, allowing the viewer to watch the film with the MovieIQ pop-up trivia option or the Cine-Chat option (seriously, does anyone actually use that?), and access additional promotional materials.


I could make disparaging comparisons between the remake and the original all day. But in and of itself, as a representative of its particular genre (big studio summer action film) in its specific time and place (post-Giulliani, post-9/11, Disneyfied New York), The Taking of Pelham 123 delivers; it's slick and fast and loud and fun to watch, and sometimes, that's good enough.

Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.

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