Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Remake Starring Travolta and Washington

In the new action thriller “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” a remake of the 1974 movie, director Tony Scott frames the hijacking of a subway train and the subsequent standoff between cops and crooks as a terrifying cat-and-mouse game, pitting an ordinary, overburdened train dispatcher, played by Denzel Washington, against a mercurial vengeful killer portrayed by John Travolta.


Washington says that he was attracted to the role by finding a most unusual character at the center of the action-thriller.  “He’s not a cop, he is a civil servant,” the actor explains. “When he’s confronted with Ryder’s demands, he’s like, ‘Look, where’s the hostage negotiator? This is not what I do.’ Walter Garber is not a superhero. He’s scared.”


Similarly, John Travolta found his character, Ryder, to be loaded with possibilities.  “Playing a bad guy is freeing because good guys restrain themselves,” explains Travolta. “With a bad guy you can create your own moral fiber for him in varying degrees, and usually out of a wide envelope of behavior. I can be wild, calm, nutty, charming, or whatever I want.”


“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” began life as a bestselling novel by John Godey.  The book’s central puzzle kept readers guessing.  Who would rob a subway train?  You’d have to be crazy – the subway is a closed system.  Even if you get the money, there’s nowhere to escape.  The novel was first adapted for the screen in 1974, starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and today remains a cult classic.


The filmmakers approached the new adaptation – Scott, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and producers Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, and Steve Tisch, along with Scott – not as a remake of the classic film, which they felt stands on its own.  Instead, they returned to the novel, retelling the story as a highly contemporary thriller and reinventing it for a modern-day New York.  “It’s a great story, yet unknown to new generations of filmgoers,” Scott says.  “The world, and New York City in particular, has changed a lot since 1974.”


John Travolta says that though the new film has some of the same elements as the first adaptation, the new film is “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 on steroids – very intense, very hyped up, and very contemporary.”


“I’ve always liked stories where people are put in extreme circumstances, and you see how they respond when things go wrong,” says Helgeland, who won an Oscar® for his script for L.A. Confidential.  He approached producer Todd Black, for whom Helgeland had written and directed A Knight’s Tale.


“We watched the movie again and realized what a fun story it was,” remembers Black, whose producing credits include The Pursuit of Happyness and Knowing. “It felt right not for a remaking, but a retelling.”


That retelling would set the film apart from the earlier adaptation in crucial ways.  “I was interested in developing much more of a relationship between the dispatcher and the hijacker,” says Helgeland. “I felt neither the novel nor the original movie really forced Garber and Ryder to crawl under each other’s skin to figure each other out.”


The dispatcher, Garber, seeks to clear a stain on his reputation: a charge of bribery that resulted in his demotion from MTA administrator to dispatcher and now drives him to go head-to-head with the hijacker. “He believes if he helps the people on the train, he can make amends,” Helgeland says. “Garber seeks redemption.”


By contrast, Ryder seeks revenge.  Travolta’s Ryder is terrifyingly intelligent and red-hot manic, one moment showing mercy, then in a split second exploding in deadly fury. In his previous life, he thrived on Wall Street until imprisoned for embezzlement; now his motivations include settling a score with New York City.  


The characters are as opposed as the worlds they inhabit.  “Garber works for MTA NYC Transit, above ground, and when we researched it, we found it was very high-tech, like NASA,” says Scott.  “I took that world, the quiet and cleanliness and high tech quality of the MTA, and balanced that with the darkness and grittiness and bowels of New York in the subways.”


The director believed there was only one way to achieve his vision. “Tony felt very strongly about shooting the real tunnels when we decided to make this movie,” Barry Waldman, executive producer, remembers. “He wanted the sound and the fright of being in and around moving trains, for the subway to become a third character after Denzel and John.”


“Usually people build sets and try to reconstruct it on a stage instead, but there’s nothing like capturing reality,” Waldman continues.  “It’s difficult, it’s dirty, but it’s exciting. It’s a challenge, and I always love a challenge.”  And a challenge it was – with temperatures above ground hitting 100 degrees and below ground even hotter.


Scott ended up filming in the subway for four weeks, the longest and most extensive shoot ever in New York’s subway.  The production was granted access to areas NYC Transit had never before allowed a film crew, including the makers of the original Pelham.


Shooting in the tunnels can be a harrowing experience, with 400 tons of train roaring past only inches away, while the train’s “third rail shoes,” or electrical conductors, speed by even closer, with 600 volts of electricity coursing through them. “You don’t realize how big the trains are when you’re on the platform,” Washington explains. “But when you’re down on the tracks, those things are monsters, rolling at 40, 50 miles an hour. The wind can whip you around, so you’ve got to brace yourself.”


NYC Transit officials kept close watch to ensure safety; still, actors and crew were forewarned, as is every individual who enters the tunnels, that trains could come on any track, at any moment, and from any direction… and everyone should always assume the third rail is live at all times.


At the helm of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is Tony Scott, the-man-behind-the-mayhem of numerous action classics, including Top Gun, Crimson Tide, True Romance, Man on Fire, and Déjà Vu.


With camera movement, quick pans, saturated colors, and selected focus among his inimitable visual vocabulary, the director builds an escalating sense of suspense and dread in the thriller. “Tony is really a painter,” says Black. “The way he shot the scenes in the subway completely hypnotizes you and makes you feel like you’re right there.”


Scott views the tunnels as a unique and separate world. “My goal was to touch that world in a way that I felt nobody has ever touched it before.”