Friday, July 31, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123


  • Released Internationally on 12/06/09
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 31/07/09


In a nutshell

There's a subway station in the Bronx, New York City called Pelham Bay Park. A train used to leave there every day at 1:23 pm, bound south for Brooklyn Bridge. Today, it's getting held up.


This pretty straightforward hostage drama was published as a novel in 1973, and made into a successful action film in 1974, starring Robert Shaw (of Jaws fame) as the hijacker and Walter Matthau as the train dispatcher and negotiator. It has now been updated for post-9/11 New York and the Wi-Fi age, whilst leaving the telephone duet at the core of the film largely unchanged.

A day in the life

The film opens with scenes of a typical day in down-town New York, which includes commuters making their way across the grid, and the sun streaming in between the skyscrapers. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, True Romance) applies his recent quick-cut, fast-paced style to the prologue, before delving right into the action. A menacing-looking John Travolta takes his place amongst the throngs of passengers, as his shady-looking associates converge on the titular train. In a swiftly-orchestrated move he commandeers the driver’s seat, and steers the train to exactly where he wants it.

Who you gonna call?

Elsewhere in Manhattan, civil servant Walter Garber is settling down to another morning of monitoring the metro from his desk in the subway control centre. Recently demoted to his current status pending the results of an investigation, he is not in the best of moods, and when the Pelham train stops moving on his wall display, he radios in to ask what's wrong. Thus starts one of the more exciting days of his life. Denzel Washington had recently worked with Scott on Man on Fire and Déjà Vu, but his character here is much lower on ego and thrill-seeking. When he realises he's on the radio with a potential terrorist, he feels he's not the man for the job, but unluckily for him Travolta's character insists that he is.

Not so different

After recently starring as a curvy woman in Hairspray and a heroic dog in Bolt, Travolta dons tattoos and a goatee to complete the hostile appearance of his foul-mouthed criminal, ‘Ryder’. Organised and assertive, although prone to bouts of aggression, he courts Garber in a waltz of dialogue and negotiations. Whilst the hostage situation itself isn't so different from countless similar films, what adds a bit of an edge to this story is the back-story of the main characters involved. Not satisfied with simply making monetary demands, Ryder gives a one-hour deadline for delivery of the cash, and then spends a good part of that hour questioning and philosophizing with Garber. The issue of Garber's pending investigation is brought to the fore, and Ryder plays on his failings and compares them to his own. The mind games continue when the New York mayor shows up (James Gandolfini - The Sopranos, The Man Who Wasn't There), and Ryder preys on his recent public scandals to evoke an angry response. Ultimately, the three characters are using the dramatic events of the day to seek redemption, and to try and set the record straight.

Anyone else?

Rounding off the cast is John Turturro (Transformers, Barton Fink) as the head of the NYPD hostage team, whom Ryder refuses to speak to and who has to do his work through Garber, and Luis Guzmán (Punch-Drunk Love, Out of Sight) as Ryder's main henchman and possibly his weakest link. The acting is serviceable, with Washington the most convincing as the insecure yet resourceful dispatcher. Travolta seems as bit too over the top as he shouts out obscenities, but the insane glint in his eye serves him well in the role.

In the end

The story is engaging, as most hostage dramas tend to be, and the film doesn't outstay its welcome. By wisely focusing on the characters involved as much as the action, the film manages to add a level of sophistication, but the ending is predictable and nothing new. This is an entertaining way to spend an evening, but I suspect it would take another remake for this film to be remembered in twenty year's time.


Mark's Mark - 6/10


Trailer: (High-res QuickTime)


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