At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Taking of Pelham 123 “09”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Action-Thriller/ Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzmán, Michael Rispoli, Frank Wood, John Benjamin Hickey, Gary Basaraba, Ramón Rodríguez, Jake Siciliano, Aunjanue Ellis, Tonye Patano, Jason Butler Harner, Victor Gojcaj/ Runtime: 106 minutes

I feel it must be said that it really does seem like a foreboding omen at best or a designation of certain annihilation whenever the word “remake” or anything similar is latched on to any movie being made, but especially if that film is inching into the turf of more iconic properties. Indeed if you don’t believe then try watching the 1998 colorized remake of Psycho from Gus Van Sant if you really want perhaps the definitive example for literally it seems everything that could go wrong when attempting to remake a classic. Yet even though 1974’s cunning crime thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not Hitchcock by any stretch of the imagination, it is still loved and appreciated by many, this reviewer included, and still holds up as a riveting showcase of iconic filmmaking from the 1970s. Imagine my utter surprise then to learn, upon watching the 2009 take on this iconic tale, that despite being absolutely predictable in every sense of the word that the 2009 version was actually not that bad? Indeed it may not be the best remake ever conceived in the world, but with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington, and John Travolta squaring off in the roles made famous by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw respectively they all just managed to make something that could have been quite unremarkable actually more entertaining than it could’ve been. Indeed the conclusion may be known from the word go, but the talented trio at the heart of this film have managed to give us one that is filled with a delightful cat and mouse game, wonderful performances from everyone involved, and being as lively as possible for a movie that is primarily set in 2 locations and has minimal in the action department, but as much tension and suspense as it can possibly carry.

The plot is as follows: The Taking of Pelham 123 introduces us to a seemingly ordinary and run-of-the-mill kind of guy by the name of Walter Garber who, we soon learn, is a skilled transit authority dispatcher. Indeed, despite a mystery cloud hanging over his head, it would seem that Mr. Garber is quite the skilled individual in his line of work. Suffice it to say it is this fact about the man which will come in handy when his typical day-to-day at work is quickly and horrifically thrown a serious curve ball. A curve ball that we soon learn was pitched by a group of armed individuals led by a guy that eventually self-designates himself as “Ryder” and comes in the form of these people taking over a subway car that was headed out from the station at Pelham (hence the title). Thus it isn’t too much of a spoiler to reveal that it is Garber who finds himself saddled as the go-between for Ryder and the city of New York in a manner of speaking, and it is also to Garber that Ryder soon rattles off a list of demands. A list that includes no more and no less than the delivery of 10 million dollars in cold hard cash in no less a time than 60 minutes on the dot that is to be delivered to where Ryder has chosen to stop the train. Of course there is also an extra wrinkle in this: for every minute that the money is late or rather not with Ryder onboard, then he will viciously take it upon himself to murder one hostage at random. Yet when Garber is soon removed from his post and replaced by an NYPD hostage negotiator by the name of Camonetti, Ryder, having developed an oddly affable rapport with Garber soon firmly (read between the lines: violently) requests that Garber handle things. However when an unforeseen discovery soon gives Ryder the ability to take the initiative in the deadly battle of wills that he and Garber have become engaged in, the stage is set for a showdown that will see two men go head to head for a prize that takes the form of a group of strangers’ lives and in which the only thing more frightening than the men with guns aboard the subway train is the rapidly ticking hands of a clock….

Now it should be noted that film helmer Tony Scott really manages to contribute a much-desired visual style and vibrancy to a movie that is otherwise stagnant through and through. Indeed this is a film which acquires a lot of its action beats either through the hijacked subway car which has come to a stop somewhere on the tracks or in a decent-size office room; a pair of settings that aren’t exactly the most stimulating at least from a perspective. To that end, Tony Scott manages to jazz things up quite a bit as we are treated to a movie that possesses a truly hectic look that includes but not limited to speedy edits and zooms, a blend of slow and fast photography, quite a bit of handheld camera utilization and that is just for the movie’s main title sequence at the beginning. Yes it does slow up once things in the movie begin rolling along, but it nevertheless manages to keep things loose and free-flowing especially when the dialogue-laden action might not permit such from occurring. Also it should be noted that this is a film that, due to the story being told, requires tight work from the script writer in order to help keep the suspense quite constant. Indeed despite the fact that this film has the quite clichéd “antagonist pressing for cash that if he doesn’t get will see him start bumping people off” routine as the heart of this tale, this film’s script still has terrific dialogue, especially when Ryder and Garber are engaging in both conversation as well as the art of both finding out any potential loose strings the other may have as well as filling in both of these men’s respective back stories. Thus when taking that into account, all the film needs is a pair of actors who can make movie magic, and suffice it to say Washington and Travolta manage to answer the call and work well together as the pair of men facing off on opposite sides of both law and order as well as the microphone.

Indeed this is a movie which, before anything else, works on the level that it does because of its dynamic duo of lead performers’ gift for taking material that is typical and making it feel both personable, crucial, perilous, serious, and quite realistic. Yes, as stated above, Tony Scott’s distinct directorial style does add a sense of urgency to the film, but it is the back and forth between Washington and Travolta that really makes this film shine. Indeed in regards to the character of Walter Garber, we as an audience are treated to yet another typically wonderfully turn from Denzel Washington with the extra caveat here being that this is a character that is vastly different from the others he has played in other Tony Scott movies such as Déjà Vu in 2006 and Man on Fire in 2004 respectively. Indeed in this one we get a Denzel that is rocking a little bit of gray amongst his hair, is wearing a sweater and glasses, and is significantly more of an everyman than the kickin’ butt characters he played before. As a result, it is a lot less difficult for you movie lover to really connect with this film’s protagonist personally as he is having to learn on the go just how to deal with this situation that he has found himself thrust into. In fact, if I had to think of anything that Garber has in common with those other characters it would be that Garber is a flawed individual though in this case it’s a quirk that seems to aid him in his on-going verbal chess match with Ryder. Speaking of the yin to Garber’s yang, we see that in the role of Ryder that John Travolta manages to portray this role with an engaging yet ruthless deviousness as well as just the slightest possible indicators of genuine madness hiding just underneath how professionally he has pulled off this hijacking whilst also showcasing a vibe of peril and menace that ups the stakes immensely. Indeed it might be hard nowadays with about 98% of the material that he has been making, but this film manages to give us a legitimately good Travolta performance and show that, given the right material, he can still be just as dynamic as ever. Now not wanting to just have to depend on the performances being given by its 2 dynamic leads however, the film also features wonderful co-starring performances from James Gandolfini, John Turturro, and Luis Guzman amongst others that really help to flesh out the both the world of the film as well as give each of the men capable support in their respective corners in that world.

All in all it is, even when the pedigree of star power that was working on this film, a wee bit surprising for me to reveal to you all that The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a rare breed of film through and through. I say this because this is one of those distinctly uncommon films in existence that despite, being completely predictable in regards to where the film’s story is headed from beginning to end, still manages to succeed quite admirably. Indeed this may seem like, when you first glance it over, seemingly basic fare that involves a typical good guy going up against a not-so-good guy and his crew whilst also dealing with the bad guy having a nefarious plot that deals with a group of terrified hostages somewhere and a firm request for a giant amount of money and guess what? You are absolutely right; it is exactly that and props to you for spotting it. However when you add to that mix some dependable work from director Tony Scott, an actually engaging script by Brian Helgeland, a pair of dynamic lead performances from both Denzel Washington and John Travolta as well as decent work from a capable supporting cast then what could’ve been just another run-of-the-mill crime thriller is transformed into one that is actually kind of entertaining. As it is, The Taking of Pelham 123 might not be nowhere close to how great is predecessor from 1974 is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice little subway ride to take home and enjoy time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Taking of Pelham 123 “09” a solid 3.5 out of 5.