THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 [R]
review by Daniel M. Kimmel
Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta and Luis Guzmán; Directed by Tony Scott; [R] ::: for violence and pervasive language; 106 minutes.
The 1974 movie “The Taking of Pelham 123” is a wonderful time capsule of New York City in the early ‘70s. Featuring an amazing cast of character actors headed by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, it was a taut thriller based on John Godey’s novel about the hijacking of a subway train. Looked at now it offers some colorful performances and a sense of how the country viewed New York at the time as circling the drain. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, yet it has actually spawned two remakes. The first was a 1998 TV movie (starring Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio), and the second is a new theatrical version starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. The new film follows the same storyline, revamping it for 2009.
The plot is the same. Four men, led by a crafty mastermind (John Travolta) who has worked it all out, hijack a subway. They’re asking for $10 million (instead of a paltry million), and are threatening to kill the passengers if the money isn’t there in an hour. The contact is a transit employee – a cop in the original, an executive under a cloud (Denzel Washington) in this one – who has to figure out how to keep the hijackers satisfied while minimizing the loss of life. It’s contrived, of course, but in the hands of an experienced craftsman like director Tony Scott, it proves to be suspenseful entertainment.
The ’74 film was not a masterpiece but it did provide a showcase for a great cast including Martin Balsam, Tony Roberts, Jerry Stiller, and Hector Elizondo. As it reflects its era, the new film reflects ours. This is obviously a post-9/11 film with repeated references to the hijackers as “terrorists.” It is also plays with our anxiety about the economic meltdown as several characters worry about the effect the hijacking is having on the stock market. Then there are the technological changes that have occurred over the past 35 years, from the computerized controls at the Transit Authority to the laptop one of the hostages uses to communicate with his girlfriend.
For students of Hollywood there’s another notable change. The earlier film was an ensemble piece of character actors. Matthau and Shaw may have been first among equals, but neither would be confused with, say, Robert Redford. The new film, however, is a star vehicle for Washington and Travolta. The appearance of John Turturro (as a hostage negotiator) and James Gandolfini (as the mayor) simply underscores the Hollywood pecking order. Not to take anything away from the stars, who do solid work here, but where the film falls short is in the final reel when it is required that there be a big confrontation scene. It’s preposterous and unnecessary, occurring only because Hollywood believes audiences require it.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is a popcorn movie, nothing more and nothing less. We won’t be discussing it at Oscar time but it’s a fun diversion as we head into the warm weather.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.