The Taking of Pelham 123
I had always thought that someone should do a modern-day remake of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 film “The Taking of Pelham 123,” based on the novel by John Godey. The movie, about a group of men who hi-jack a subway car and hold the passengers for ransom is set in the grimy, broke, New York of the 1970s. My thought was to explore what it would mean if this event happened in today’s hi-tech, post 9/11 New York.
Director Tony Scott has made a credible “Pelham” update that is, at points, exciting, involving and even manages to plug a story hole that always bothered me about the original. Unfortunately though, in the process, Scott has also made a “Pelham” that gives us the words but none of the music. He seems to have forgotten to add flavor and humor. Hyper-kinetic camera work, where even a simple conversation becomes an adventure in circular camera direction, stock market manipulation, the mayor’s personal life, the internet, quick cuts, the price of gold and bribes all serve to update “Pelham’s” story and style, but the elements that made the original so memorable have been forgotten. Maybe you just can’t go home again. The original had wit, humor and real New York attitude provided by a good supporting cast and most especially by Walter Matthau’s rumpled transit cop, Lt. Garber. Matthau’s world weary demeanor and humorous asides gave the original a comic tension which contrasted with and enhanced the seriousness of the film’s hostage situation.
Much as the original was Matthau’s show, to his credit Denzel Washington shoulders the remake, in a re-written version of the Matthau role, as Walter Garber the subway equivalent of an air traffic controller. Garber winds up reluctantly forming a relationship with subway hi-jacker Ryder (John Travolta), via radio. Washington, who reportedly put on 40 pounds for the role, gives a good, convincing performance as a working stiff just trying to do his job while in over his head. In this version Garber is a man with a past who seeks redemption, which is a nice addition to the story.
Travolta, on the other hand, is over the top with a performance consisting of lots of yelling, cursing and shooting people at point blank range, in contrast to Robert Shaw’s “cool-as-a-cucumber” hi-jacker, Mr. Blue in the original. Less was definitely more. Plus remember how all the hi-jackers in the 1974 “Pelham” called each other by color, Mr. Gray, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown, an idea later appropriated by Quentin Tarantino in “Reservoir Dogs (1992)?” Here they are just generic bad guys.
James Gandolfini has a thankless role as the Mayor of New York. Whereas the original’s mayor (played by Lee Wallace) was a hilarious, buffoonish, flu-ridden, frustrated politician who reluctantly agreed to the hi-jackers’ million-dollar ransom only to save his re-election prospects, Gandolfini’s mayor just wants to end his term and retire. “I left my Giuliani suit at home,” he says. In other words there is not much at stake for this mayor and, as a result, no dramatic tension for his character.
The new “Pelham” is an OK action film featuring a strong central performance by Denzel Washington but it lacks the humor, ambiance and multi-colored bad guys of its predecessor. You know what? Rent the original instead.
The Taking of Pelham 123, director Tony Scott, 2009,
Columbia Pictures, 106 minutes, rated R