In contrast to Joseph Sargent’s 1974 original, Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123 is loud, fast, and action packed from start to finish. Right from the opening credits which roll to Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’, we know we are in for a hell of a ride. From the outset Scott treats us to his usual style of hyperactive, restless cinematography – cutting from close ups of Ryder (John Travolta) with his tattooed neck and handlebar moustache to sped up and slowed down shots of New York from every angle imaginable that suddenly grind to a halt when we see Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) for the first time in his boring office setting where he works as a disgraced dispatcher accused of taking bribes.
Only two minutes in, and I already knew I was in for a treat.
I know a lot of people have said this is a pointless remake, of what is considered to be a classic cult movie, but to me this was a remake dying to happen. Joseph Sargent’s version, no doubt a brilliant film at the time, now plays very dated. It has good performances from Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, but that version lacks excitement and character.
Tony Scott’s 2009 version of The Taking of Pelham 123, however, is full of character! John Travolta is brilliant as the uncompromising, unhinged, maniacal lunatic, Ryder, calm one minute, insane the next. Prone to bouts if severe profanity, he plays the character with humor and yet doesn’t lose that sinister edginess (which we also saw him display in Broken Arrow and Face/Off). In contrast, Denzel plays an average family man, Garber, who is fighting corruption charges. Denzel is believable as this ‘average Joe’ character, and the banter between these two characters is entertaining from beginning to end.
Like I mentioned previously, there is no waiting around for the story to kick in – within minutes Ryder and his men have taken control of a subway train and the eighteen passengers within. If Garber does not get $10 million to him within one hour, a hostage will be killed each and every minute thereafter. We know he’s serious when he shoots someone because the hostage negotiator refuses to let him speak with Garber. From this point Scott makes us well aware of that ticking clock.
From a cinematic standpoint, the shots of the police cars and bikes whipping through New York traffic are amazing. Here Scott abandons his schizophrenic, dizzying, camera angles and goes for clean wide shots. The sound of the speeding traffic is deafening and one more reason to see this in the cinema where you’ll get the full impact.
The only problem with The Taking of Pelham 123 is the hostages themselves, they are in a claustrophobic subway carriage amongst mad men with machine guns (who incidentally, have killed someone right in front of them) and yet they stay incredibly calm. They are almost cardboard cut-outs in a film that is otherwise very well acted. It doesn’t matter too much though, as Scott’s main focus is the two leads, and they are more than capable of carrying the film. Strangely, I ended up caring about how it ended for both characters in equal measure.
This is no high brow film, nor does it pretend to be. It is a high energy, high entertainment, blockbuster – and if that’s the kind of film you’re into, you won’t be disappointed with The Taking of Pelham 123.