The Taking of Pelham 123

taking of pelhamI 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

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on June 25, 2009, in What were they thinking?. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Sorry to read that the remake is a disappointment. I have an affection for the original and really thought they could do a fun remake. But once I saw Travolta was in it in “cartoon bad guy” mode, I kind of lost interest.

    • unpaidfilmcritic

      Thanks for your comment. You know, for a fraction of what the remake must have cost they could have just done restoration work on the original’s picture and sound and then re-release really good prints to theatres. The only problem then is that no one would go see the movie because the majority of the audience would perceive it as being an old movie without recognizable actors. So for the sake of familiar faces these audiences now get a less than stellar re-tread while most wont even know its a remake. Don’t even get me started on the awful beyond reason remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still!!!”

      Best,
      Seth

  2. Hey, I actually read this book a long time ago. I liked the movie because John Travolta plays a really good “bad guy.” Are you having any luck getting folks to access your web site? need any advice?

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