The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) Review

The Film

It’s a simple story, but a good one: A group of armed men, led by the unhinged Ryder (John Travolta), board a New York subway train. They take control of a carriage and demand a ransom for the nineteen hostages under their control. The city of New York has an hour to cough up $10 million, and for every minute that the money is late, one hostage will be executed. Of course, with no apparent means of escape, the hijackers must be incredibly foolhardy, or else they’ve thought of a way out that no-one else has considered. Enter Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a mild-mannered subway dispatcher, who finds himself between a rock and a hard place as, due to happenstance (or fate, as Ryder would have it), he ends up being the villains’ main point of contact with the outside world.

Of all people, John Travolta is the one who hits the nail on the head as regards the potential folly of creating a new version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in the documentary included with this release: “I said ‘Okay, what are you going to do to improve that? I mean, that’s still a good movie.’ ” Er, quite. That’s not to say that Joseph Sargent’s original 1974 adaptation of the John Godey novel is untouchable - the existence of a supposedly diabolical 1998 TV movie has already put paid to that - but the original is so good, so quintessential, so of its time that there needs to be a very good reason indeed for dusting off the source material and taking another crack at it in 2009. (Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that, while the source material acknowledged in the film’s opening credits is the original novel, it’s clear from any of the interviews with the various parties involved that their frame of reference was the 1974 film.)

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Enter Tony Scott, whose directorial style (and yes, feel free to make the imaginary quotation marks gesture as you read “style”) is about as far from Sargent’s as you can possibly get. The original was an exercise in minimalism, devoid of flashy cinematography and with “slow” and “deliberate” being the watchwords, but, in spite of this, or indeed perhaps because of this, very tense indeed. Scott’s style, which reached its apex (or should that be nadir?) with 2005’s Domino, is most assuredly neither slow nor deliberate, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that his interpretation of the plot calls for jarring jump cuts, a continually moving camera, a glut of slow motion and time lapse photography, not to mention a deliriously misplaced hip hop soundtrack interrupting the action at regular intervals.

I happen to think that Scott is a fine action movie director, with his 1998 Will Smith/Gene Hackman vehicle Enemy of the State being my favourite of all his films (an unusual choice, perhaps, but there you go). However, there can be little doubt that he is painfully unsuited to this material. The plot, essentially that of two men talking to each other at either end of a telephone line to the backdrop of a metaphorical ticking bomb, demands that the director eke as much tension out of the situation as possible. Scott simply isn’t patient enough to do this, and clearly had great trouble dealing with a script that is essentially limited to two confined locations.

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While the original had Robert Shaw’s deceptively calm but unquestionably menacing Mr. Blue smooth-talking Walter Matthau, the remake has Travolta’s Ryder (the colour-coded names for the hijackers having been ditched presumably because Quentin Tarantino already pilfered that device in Reservoir Dogs) scream into the intercom at the top of his lungs, peppering his dialogue liberally with “fucker”, “motherfucker” and variations thereof. Travolta plays the character like an extension of Scott’s filmmaking style: loud, over the top and obvious. From the moment he steps on to the screen, he screams and shouts and brandishes his gun, and as a result doesn’t have anywhere else to go with his character. There’s no danger of him losing it because he never had it to begin with. Washington fares far better, capturing Garber’s dogged determination and underdog personality without slavishly mimicking Matthau. He provides the much-needed counterpoint to Travolta’s frothy-mouthed insanity, and actually manages to lend the picture an air of class just by being there. True, he’s essentially in the same role he played in Spike Lee’s Inside Man, but then that film was clearly heavily inspired by The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to begin with.

To give credit where it’s due, Scott and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, offer some genuinely inventive riffs on the original to keep those familiar with the material on their toes. For example, in the original Garber manages to prevent further casualties by lying and claiming that the money has arrived at the station on time, rightly pointing out that the hijackers, holed up down a railway tunnel, are in no position to know whether or not this is the truth. Flash forward to 2009, everything is being streamed live on the Internet and of course the crooks have a laptop with web access. Garber calls their bluff and they don’t fall for it. Likewise, the fate of one character is very different indeed from that of the original, and thus comes as a genuine shock. Moments such as these are highly effective because they directly acknowledge the audience’s familiarity with the original and use this to subvert their expectations. Unfortunately, this does mean that we lose what was perhaps the greatest movement of both the novel and the first film: the twist ending. While Sargent’s version bowed out with a cheeky wink, the 2009 update descends into mawkishness and even manages to slip in a heavy-handed bit of promotion for the New York subway system. Of course, the original was very much a contemporary piece in its day, effortlessly conveying the flavour of New York. The remake... not so much. The backdrop is there, but that’s about it. It could just as easily have taken place in San Francisco or Tokyo.

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Even less effective are the attempts to give the hostages more colour by developing their personalities. This was possibly the greatest failing of the original, which essentially relegated them to one-word clichés (the hooker, the alcoholic, etc., as they were identified in the closing credits). They are still essentially throwaways, though, and while attempts are also made to flesh out Garber and Ryder with back-stories, explaining their motives, this goes against the grain of the material and the fact that they were both supposed to be unremarkable everyman types. (On the other hand, Ryder’s three partners in crime, each given distinct personalities in the original, disappear into the background here. In fact, two of them are so irrelevant that they could easily have been played by non-speaking extras.) Furthermore, the decision to provide a link to the outside in the form of a hostage with a webcam-equipped laptop can only be described as a colossal mistake, because it means that the isolated nature of the subway carriage essentially becomes irrelevant. What made the original so tense and claustrophobic was that the hijackers and their hostages were completely cut off from the outside world. In the remake, the stand-off could have occurred anywhere.

For better or for worse, the new version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three has to stand on its own feet, if for no other reason than that the bulk of its target audience will have never even heard of the 1974 original, much less actually seen it. As such, when I sat down to write this review, I told myself I wouldn’t simply compare one version against the other. In the end, however, I can see that this is precisely what I have done. In a way, it was unavoidable. For every misstep in the 2009 version, there is a corresponding point in the 1974 version where that mistake is avoided, and while the remake does expand on certain elements that were underdeveloped in the original, it’s hard not to see them as ultimately superficial. Taken on its own terms, The Taking of Pelham 123 is a reasonably competent thriller, but if you want some meat with your gravy, you would be advised to check out either the 70s original or the very similar Inside Man.

The Disc

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It’s difficult to come up with anything negative to say about either the transfer or the audio on this all-regions UK release. As is increasingly becoming the case with new films being released on BD, what we have on the disc appears to be an entirely faithful reproduction of the digital intermediate (DI) coupled with a lossless audio track. In short, any imperfections tend to be down to the source material itself rather than anything that as been done at the encoding stage. Detail is excellent, the pronounced grain appears natural and unmolested, and compression is absolutely fine across the board. A terrific presentation in every way.

In addition to the primary DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, German and Italian DTS-HD MA 5.1 dubs are also included, as well as an English audio descriptive Dolby Digital 5.1 track at 640 Kbps. The film is subtitled in English, English SDH, German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Hindi, Norwegian, Swedish and Turkish, with English, German and Italian subtitles provided for the extras.

Extras consist of two audio commentaries, one featuring Tony Scott and the other featuring Brian Helgeland and Todd Black, as well as a 30-minute puff pastry featurette on the making of the film (surprise, surprise, everyone involved is absolutely brilliant), a 16-minute piece on the use of the New York subway system as a location and, most bizarrely of all, a 5-minute look at the film’s hairstyles, featuring copious footage of Tony Scott during a trick to the barber’s. This last featurette is the only one to be presented in standard definition. Finally, Marketing Pelham consists of three relatively similar trailers - each presented, oddly enough, in a ratio of around 2:1.

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