The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

The Taking of Pelham 123

Even in a crowd, John Travolta stands out.

(Columbia) Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, Victor Gojcaj, Ramon Rodriguez, Aunjanue Ellis, Gary Basaraba, John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Kaluzhasky. Directed by Tony Scott.

We never know what awaits us when we walk out our front door every morning. Maybe it will be a good day, maybe a bad one. Maybe it will be an extraordinary day.

New York subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) is having a bad day. He’s been demoted from a management position for the New York Transit Authority to dispatching trains because of the suspicion that he took bribes. He has to put up with the abuse from a nasty mid-level manager (Rispoli) and the stress of the upcoming trial hangs over him like a cloud.

A strange voice comes over the microphone for the train Pelham 123 where his buddy, Jerry Pollard (Basaraba) should be. It’s a man calling himself Ryder (Travolta) informing him that he and a group of armed men have taken the train and are demand a $10 million ransom to be delivered in an hour. After that, one passenger will be executed for every minute the ransom is overdue.

The mayor (Gandolfini), a lame duck going through a marital scandal of his own, turns out to be remarkably helpful and tolerant, not at all the way New York mayors have been portrayed onscreen these days. A patient hostage negotiator (Turturro) tries to help, but Ryder and Garber have formed a strange connection. As time ticks down and the city races against the clock to save the hostages, a relationship forms between Ryder and Garber, which will inevitably lead to a showdown that only one will walk away from.

Based on a 1974 movie starring Walter Matthau (as Garber) and Robert Shaw (as Ryder) – itself based on a John Godey novel – Pelham reunites director Scott and Washington, who have also done Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Déjà vu to name a few. Whereas Matthau was rumpled, cynical and tough, Washington is basically a good-hearted heroic sort who made a mistake and is paying for it. While Shaw was icy and cool, Travolta is loud, angry and not very different from his character in Broken Arrow.

Perhaps it was a mistake, but I watched the 1974 original the night before I saw the remake. Whereas the original was gritty and realistic, the new one is sleek and modern. The 1974 edition had a loud, abrasive jazz score; the 2009 version is more traditionally scored. The first Pelham was low-tech and relied on characterization and tension for its thrills; the second uses digital effects and bigger car crashes to set the tone (although the 1974 version’s iconic car crash was quite elegant).

So is the first version better than this one? I think so, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing. They are definitely different movies meant to appeal to different audiences. Some of the twists in the first Pelham were telegraphed whereas I have to admit that wasn’t the case in the new one. Director Scott is a veteran action director and while this isn’t going to be regarded as one of his best, it’s still solid and extremely watchable. The problem I have here is that he often uses stylized camera tricks such as slow-mo helicopter travelling shots, or cameras that spiral around their subjects. It’s annoying and unnecessary. Washington and Travolta are both dependable performers and while you don’t get the sense of their character’s soul as much as you might like, I’d rather see these two in mediocre performances than a lot of other actors at their best.

This is definitely a Hollywood action film, with all that is good and bad about the genre. If you like that sort of thing (and I do), I guarantee you’ll go away entertained. If you prefer thrillers to action movies, you might do better to rent the original than see this. This movie won’t blow you out of the water, but it will accomplish what a lot of movies fail to do – it won’t make you regret plopping down the ten bucks to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: A slick Hollywood action movies with some very nice scenes. Washington and Travolta aren’t at the top of their game, but their game is such that even a sub-par performance by either is worth checking out. Gandolfini makes a great mayor.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken in the action movie genre. There is more brawn than brain to this movie. Scott succumbs to “look-ma-I’m-directing” disease.

FAMILY VALUES: Some blue language, a couple of cold-blooded killings but otherwise suitable for older kids..  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first name of Denzel Washington’s character was changed from Zachary to Walter in honor of Walter Matthau, who played the role in the original film.