Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The

Tony Scott's “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” a very loose remake of Joseph Sargent's terrific 1974 cult hostage thriller, is a mixed blessing, an updated version for our times, interspersed with some witty observations about life in New York City that is overly saturated with the helmer's excessive stylistic flourishes, calling too much attention to themselves, at the expense of serving the tale. 


While the characterization in this contempo reworking of John Godey's novel (upon which both films are based) is sharper and deeper, largely due to Brian Helgeland's screenplay, and the acting of the two leads solid, the movie suffers from a preposterous third reel and a weak, generic ending.


In his fourth teaming with Scott (most recently “Deja Vu”), the brilliant Denzel Washington stars as New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, a seemingly ordinary city employee whose ordinary day is thrown into chaos by the hijacking of a subway train.  Structured as a cat-and-mouth thriller, the movie juxtaposes Garber with Ryder (played with gusto by John Travolta), the criminal mastermind behind the heist. 


In the original movie, the two roles were played by non-glamorous stars, Walter Matthau and British Robert Shaw, respectively.  But give credit where it's due: Though cast with major stars (associated with established screen images), both Washington and Travolta submerge themselves completely into their roles, beginning with their physical appearances (more about it later). 


The premise of the two pictures is the same. Ryder, the volatile leader of an armed gang of four, threatens to execute the passengers of a hijacked train unless a large ransom of $10 million is paid to him in cash within one hour.  It's hard not to notice the inflation factor: In 1974, the ransom was $1 million, and in the new one it's actually 10 million and one cent (there's a smart joke about how this penny is to be spent).


After a brief prologue, the clock begins ticking, and Scott, for better or worse, inserts on screen the specific time during the negotiations as punctuation marks, often up to the second (“you have 13:12 minutes left”).  The central plot, which is rather involving, unfolds more or less in real time.  The film's main problem resides in the last half an hour, which deviates substantially from Sargent's film in depicting the face-to-face meeting between Garber and Ryder, the utterly unbelievable escape, and the preposterous ending.  During those events, the movie falls apart, almost negating the many good elements that precede it.


Ironically, the tale is much more involving and entertaining when the two chief characters communicate via radi phone, with one above ground and the other underground. When first met, Walter Garber comes across as an ordinary civil servant, an overburdened train dispatcher who would like to delegate the handling of the crisis to the hostage negotiator of the NYPD (John Torturro, excellent).  However, he soon realizes that he will have to employ his vast expert knowledge of the subway system, and common sense instincts about human behavior, in a battle to outwit a vengeful killer like Ryder in an effort to save the 19 hostages.


Both versions benefit from the story's central puzzle: Who in his right mind would rob a subway train, a rather closed and dangerous system, from which it's all but impossible to escape. 

That said, 35 years have passed since the first picture, and a lot has changed in our urban life, politics, ideology, mores, and pop culture.  Thus, the filmmakers' decision is sound to retell the story as a contemporary thriller, reinventing it as a saga set in modern-day New York City. 


Quite impressively, Helgeland goes beyond the novel and original movie in depicting two flawed individuals, forcing Garber and Ryder to crawl under each other’s skin to figure each other out.  We learn that Garber seeks to clear a stain on his reputation, based on a bribery charge, which resulted in his demotion from MTA administrator to dispatcher.  In contrast to Garber who seeks redemption, Ryder seeks revenge, or settling a score with New York City, which made him a victim. Though a red-hot manic, one moment showing mercy, then in a split second exploding in fury and killing hostages in cold blood, he is an intelligent professional with Wall Street connections who served some time in prison. (No more details can be revealed without spoiling the suspense) 

In the original film, the mayor was a nebbish, a caricature (modeled on Abe Beame) of an indecisive Jewish politician, who suffers from flu during the crisis and is highly dependent on his entourage for opinion.  In the new version, the character is Italian-American and much more nuanced, particularly the way he is interpreted by James Gandolfini (still best known for his iconic role in “The Sopranos”). An independently wealthy businessman, plagued by waning popularity and divorce scandal, the Mayor is much more aware of his self-image and what he means to his public (“how do I look?” he asks in the midst of the crisis, examining his receding hair).


The part of Lieutenant Vincent Camonetti, the head of the New York Police Department’s hostage negotiation team, is wonderfully played by the superb character actor John Turturro, who's mostly done indies (by the Coen brothers).  His part didn't exist in the original “Pelham,” because in 1974, the NYPD didn’t have a hostage negotiator.


Ultimately, this “Pleham” is marred by the basic incompatibility between Helgeland's sensibility as a writer (evident in his 1997 Oscar-winning screenplay for “L.A. Confidential”), trying to ground the story and its persona in a recognizable reality and Scott's notoriously familiar strategy to hype everything up.  Dizzyingly fast, deafeningly loud, and punctuated with montages of city maps and locations, this “Pelham” occasionally feels surreal and even psychedelic, like seeing and doing everything on steroids.


Production design is striking: The characters are as opposed as the socio-physical worlds they inhabit.  Garber works for MTA NYC Transit, a quiet, controlled and sophisticated high-tech site, usually dominated by hierarchical order and authority. This milieu is counter-balanced with the darkness and grittiness of New York's subway system.  The rails and tunnels, with their fearful sounds, function as a unique and separate location.  Reportedly Scott shot in the subway for four weeks, which is the longest, most extensive shoot ever in New York's subway, gaining access to areas NYC Transit had never before allowed a crew, including the makers of the 1974 picture.


Scott approaches the text with his characteristically ultra-energetic style, defined by extremely rapid camera movement, quick pans, saturated colors, shifting selected focus, dynamic pacing, montages and inserts, and loud rock music.


What elevates the film considerably is the terrific ensemble of actors, both lead and supporting.

Looking ordinary, Washington, in very short hair and brown glasses, gives an impressively restrained performance, which emphasizes the ordinariness of his character, a happily married man and father of two, who might have erred even if he told himself it was for a good cause.

In contrast, Travolta, with his cropped hair, handlebar mustache, and tattooed neck, does the opposite, justifiably going over the top in playing a schizoid villain, by turn charming and menacing, calm and crazy, decent and wildly violent.


Walter Garber – Denzel Washington
Ryder – John Travolta
Camonetti – John Turturro
Phil Ramos – Luis Guzman
John Johnson – Michael Rispoli
Mayor – James Gandolfini



A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures presentation in association with Relativity Media of a Scott Free/Escape Artists production.

Produced by Todd Black, Tony Scott, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch.

Executive producers, Michael Costigan, Ryan Kavanaugh.

Co-executive producers, Linda Favila, Anson Downes.

Directed by Tony Scott.

Screenplay, Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey.
Camera, Tobias Schliessler.

Editor, Chris Lebenzon.

Music, Harry Gregson-Williams.

Production designer, Chris Seagers; art director, David Swayze; set decorator, Regina Graves.
Costume designer, Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.

Sound, Tom Nelson; supervising sound editors, Kami Asgar, Sean McCormack; sound designer, Paul Pirola; supervising sound mixers, Paul Massey, David Giammarco.

Visual effects supervisors, Nathan McGuinness, Marc Varisco.
Visual effects, Asylum.

Special effects supervisor, John Frazier.

Stunt coordinator, Chuck Picerni.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running Time: 105 Minutes