The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Dir: Tony Scott
The best and worst compliment you can pay Tony Scott is that his films have a style. The visual he pioneered with films such as Domino and Man on Fire, the “temperature-cam” has become a staple of all of Scott’s later day films, sometimes to positive effect, as in the latter but mostly as a distraction, like in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. This remake of the little-seen Joseph Sargent classic maintains the grit and the intensity of the original, but inserts an intrusive visual reference point that hurts the atmosphere. The Tony Scott filmmaking formula is also rotting behind the walls: bigger is better, the marquee stars have to meet, and there have to be car crashes. The saving grace is the talents of John Travolta, Denzel Washington, and the retention of the tone of the original film. Make no mistake: this movie is dark. Hostages die, the villain is wicked and the hero has faults of his own. While the original flirted with the idea of a morality play, this film firmly roots its characters in the world of an economy that makes people do things they didn’t think they were capable of.
Travolta plays Ryder, the leader of a crew of hijackers who take the 1:23 6 Train from Pelham Bay hostage, demanding $10,000,000 and one cent, or as Ryder tells Denzel Washington’s Garber, “your brokerage fee.” Ryder and his gang, including the criminally underused Luis Guzman, have a perfectly plotted plan, complete with knowledge of the train system provided by Guzman’s character. They demand the money within one hour, or they will execute one hostage every minute over the deadline. Naturally, this sets the city into a panic, and the authorities are brought in, as well as the mayor, played by James Gandolfini, to a curious effect as the anti-Tony Soprano. The mayor in the original and in this version serve similar purposes- to jam up the real characters with bureaucracy and politics while the main character tries to save the hostages’ lives, politics be damned! To the movie’s credit, however, the mayor in this film ends up being a bit more useful instead of an effete snob with a cold, as he was in the 1974 film. He’s the one who actually figures out Ryder’s big scheme, considering the other characters are baffled by how he plans to escape a subway tunnel with the ten million in duffel bags. The character still retains his persona, however, especially when he’s introduced riding the subway, to be among his people. He is paranoid of getting ill, referring to the train as disease ridden, to which an aide reminds him, “Sir, you’re taking the subway, not a limo.”
Brian Helgeland’s screenplay competently captures the spirit of the ’70s filmmaking style, although it does fall prey to modern Hollywood channels. A teenager chatting via webcam with his girlfriend appears, then disappears, and once the hijackers set up an internet signal, it picks up (in the movie’s best idea) and broadcasts from the train. This device is squandered for the most part, save a fantastic moment where a hostage is executed on the feed, which has been picked up by the local news. These moments are splattered in between with the girl wondering if her boyfriend loves her, and he refusing to answer under duress. There’s even a moment when one of the hijackers bends down, looks right into the laptop, and doesn’t seem to notice the glow from the screen. Essentially this device was included to “update” the film from 1974, but the fact is that it distracts more- there’s little more mention, and when the hijackers do discover the signal, they simply laugh…despite the fact that we’ve seen them kill two previous hostages for less.
The success of the 1974 version was that it boiled down to a battle of wits: Garber and Ryder didn’t get on, and each one wanted nothing more than to defeat the other. In this film, they become friends of sorts, with Ryder taking a liking to Garber, inevitably setting them up for their confrontation. In the earlier film, they don’t meet, and their verbal interactions become more tense and volatile, and increasingly watchable. Denzel Washington is a much more handsome and fit man than Walter Matthau, so naturally Garber chases Ryder across New York, and then on foot, before finally fulfilling their Action Movie Destinies
Travolta plays the character of Ryder with flair and a vigor that has long been missing from his work, although the character feels a lot more like a character from Nicolas Cage’s stable, especially with his reoccurring use of the word “motherfucker,” which from Travolta sounds like your grandfather letting out a stream of profanities in the middle of a story about socks. Travolta brings a depth to the character, however, that makes him seem like your archetypal movie villain, but also something more. He is discovered to be Catholic, and Travolta plays with the notion of balancing that infamous guilt with his personal motivations to a searing effect. Washington, playing the same character from his last three go-arounds with Tony Scott, manages to coast off of charisma. He is utterly watchable as Denzel Washington, but he also fills the everyman role of Walter Garber (a cute nod to the original actor) to the point you forget you’re watching an actor, and you wonder exactly how Garber is going to save those hostages.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is not a bad movie: it’s competently shot, the acting is top-notch, and the screenplay is not confusing or particularly insulting. The movie falters because of Scott. Situations of tension are undermined by a flashy camera flare or a slow-motion movement, or an awkward freeze-frame with the time until the deadline displayed, with the worst offender being the Google Maps-like tracking of the motorcade with the money, which was lifted shamelessly from Crank: High Voltage. In a movie where the visuals already displace your attention, these moments literally go above and beyond to show you where it’s headed. The script is tight and a few missteps aside, crackles with the performances of Denzel and John Travolta, who at times reach the vitriol of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a solid movie for a solid night out, but remember to prepare for rough travel- you’re taking the subway, not a limo.