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The Taking of Pelham 123

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini

(Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM); US DVD: 3 Nov 2009; UK DVD: 11 Jan 2010)

Review [12.Jun.2009]

You get what you pay for, or in the case of Tony Scott’s quick-cutting remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, you get a little less. With a reported budget of $100 million, investors obviously weren’t afraid to put a little extra dough into remaking what was (and remains) a pretty standard thriller.


John Travolta and Denzel Washington, whose considerable salaries assuredly took up at least a third of the aforementioned budget, star as hostage-taker and negotiator, respectively. Ryder (Travolta), angry and balding, has taken over a New York City subway car and is holding its occupants hostage for $10 million. Garber (Washington), subdued and graying, is his chosen negotiator simply because he’s not a cop and Ryder occasionally enjoys talking to him. The two trade threats, demands, and deals until the climactic showdown when the two inevitably come face to face.


If the setup is familiar, the execution is just as habitual. Scott again uses his frenetic, fast-editing technique with varying success. Most of the film is made up of two settings: the MTA subway headquarters and the hijacked train car. But this does not deter Scott from employing his now trademark fast-pans paired with multiple cuts. Whether Garber is chatting about metro specs or Ryder is about to shoot a hostage, the method does not change. 


Though it does help distract the audience from realizing nothing really happens during the second act, the technique overstays its welcome.  By the end of the film’s 121 minutes, it’s quite clear that Scott needs a new genre to force him into trying something different (perhaps a shot longer than three seconds?) with his camera.


This brings us to another problem: the film has nothing new to say. A remake should bring to light cultural changes since the original’s debut or force us to reflect on our failure to bring about needed changes. Neither is shown here. 


Pelham’s few intriguing elements can’t be as fleshed out fully without risking the conventional hostage narrative. For instance, James Gandolfini plays the mayor of New York who doesn’t immediately seem to care too much about the 17 hostages held at gunpoint because he’s not up for reelection (he plans to run for president, instead). For a brief moment, it appears the film will exist to depict how, why, and when a government head values his or her constituents. What if the mayor did nothing to help hostages in his own city?  Now there’s a movie worth seeing.
 
Also more appealing than the final product are the film’s brief deliberations on New York City itself. Every 20 minutes or so, a character will remark about the importance of the city or tell the audience something they may not have known before, specifically about the subway and its occupants. There is a brief exchange between passengers about forming a plan to escape, and an ongoing discussion between boyfriend and girlfriend via webcam, but other than these tidbits, the audience never comes to know the people at risk throughout the film. 


These people represent New Yorkers. They should be the same New Yorkers we hear mentioned with an air of bravado and pride around the words, not anonymity. At one point, Ryder asks, “These tunnels don’t change much, do they,” and Garber responds “Just the people in them.” This, however, begs the more pertinent question, “Why don’t we get to understand them?”


It could be argued Scott was merely pressed for time and gave preference to the actors with the big paychecks, but one other oversight carries with it no such excuse. The underground setting is fascinating, full of possibilities, and all but ignored. 


The single-disc DVD offering even goes so far as to include a 16-minute documentary on the film’s use of the real New York subways. Travolta and Washington discuss how they used to ride the rail daily to get to auditions. Conductors and technicians explain the risks of working with such immense amounts of energy. Though it’s not exactly a festival-level doc, it does spark a few ideas of how the film could have been altered just enough to incorporate the subway as a character rather than just a smart setting.


The disc also includes a 30-minute making-of documentary which is as by-the-book as the film, an odd segment on Tony Scott’s preferred hair stylist who apparently thinks short hair helps actors represent real people, and a so-called marketing feature which is really just seven minutes of the film’s promotional trailers. Despite being less than substantive, the sheer number of bonus features make The Taking of Pelham 123 appear to be a blockbuster film, an idea the filmmakers definitely wanted to promote. 


From the high budget and star power to the sleek cinematography and numerous cuts, Pelham has all the shimmer and shine of an old Hollywood action powerhouse. There’s little CGI and lots of chases.  While all of this works adequately, there just isn’t enough new material here to warrant what money can’t buy – a recommendation.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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