Theatrical Review: The Taking of Pelham 123
In brief, four armed men hijack a New York City subway car and hold the passengers of said car hostage, wanting a ransom demand met within an hour’s time frame, with the Transit Authority and the NYPD doing their best to save everyone.
That’s the basic plot of any version of The Taking of Pelham 123 adapted from the novel by John Godey (and no I’ve never read the novel- though in this case, if one day I ever get the chance I certainly will). First given theatrical life in 1974 by director Joseph Sargent and starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, it’s since appeared in a more forgettable TV movie and now re-made again for theatrical release by director Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.
Now generally speaking, I really don’t mind the practice of re-makes, if something fresh can be made from an existing property and I’m interested in said property, then I’m more than willing to give the filmmakers a chance with it. This is one instance though when I’ve had my own trepidation about this, because the 1974 version of Pelham 123 is right up there as a movie that’s really special to me and knowing what Tony Scott does with his films- bringing in a higher-pitched energy that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, well for myself, there was reason for concern. The thing that I like about the original, is that it is of the moment and very matter-of-fact in what it does. On top of that, the New York “feel” is extremely authentic to the timeframe the original is shot in, Matthau, Shaw and all of the other characters have a lived-in quality to them that doesn’t really require any sort of expansion, and everything unfolds in a highly logical way. Plus it’s got this tremendous score from David Shire that’s used very effectively and not at all overdone. And “overdone” was the thing that I was most concerned about with Tony Scott’s version of the film.
I still have a huge preference for the original, but I have to say, for bringing this property to the forefront with a modern audience in mind, I think Scott and scripter Brian Helgeland have done a pretty decent job and fortunately they’ve avoided some of the traps that I thought they’d play up- this being Scott’s overdone style and a modern convention of doing something a little more wise-assed with some of the passengers held hostage (basically making sure that one of the passengers would have to be like Alan Ruck in Speed).
Other than the basic plot though and the lead character’s last name- everything here is different from the original- the character name in common is Garber, that was Walter Matthau in the original (Zachary Garber), who was playing a Transit Authority cop, in this Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber (undoubtedly a tip of the hat to Matthau) and he’s no cop, but a transit authority employee currently acting in a dispatching capacity. The biggest difference here is that I suspect Scott and Helgeland have seen messageboards and seen that a common complaint that comes up is “Where’s the character development?” and so they decided to add a lot more weight to the basic character’s of Garber and the antagonist Ryder, played by John Travolta, than what’s shown in the original film- basically going for a more personal connection to these characters than what Sargent did in the original, which was make the situation one that was more black and white, and what Scott and Helgeland have opted for is something with a lot more shades of grey.
Fortunately, it works here, though my one caveat is the fact that the connection between Ryder and Scott is made pretty high-opera personal by it’s end and that’s something that I don’t think needed to be done, but at least here it’s more a moot point than what it might be with other movies.
The other thing that I have to give Scott credit for is holding back quite a bit on his style- oh sure, things are still highly kinetic, but not necessarily in the way Domino was, but still not as held back as Crimson Tide (my own personal favorite of Tony Scott’s movies). It’s not at all a distraction to this movie, so my hat’s off for that.
Of the cast, well I think Denzel Washington is solid as a rock, and I give him kudos for choosing a role like this that isn’t necessarily as proactive as others that he’s done. John Travolta does a real nice job as Ryder, and coming off of the death of his son when making this, I think he manages something here that’s pretty interesting, if quite a bit more over-the-top than what Robert Shaw did in the original. The original film also plays a lot more with the other three gunmen, and that’s something that’s not really dealt with here, but again this is going for something a little different than the original, so I won’t hold that against this. Filling out the cast is John Tuturro as an NYPD negotiator and James Gandofini as the Mayor of New York, Gandolfini is solid as expected and it’s really nice to see Tuturro play a part where he’s not a douchebag. Tuturro’s character also adds to what Garber has to do here, basically splintering off the function of what Matthau’s character did with the original.
I saw this with three other friends, two of which have seen the original film and one which hadn’t but plans to. My friend who hadn’t seen the original really had a good time with this, and I suspect that others who haven’t seen the original will probably have a pretty decent time with it as well. I’ve seen the original, and as I stated at the top, certainly had my fears going into this, but I don’t think the remake does anything to tarnish the original by any means, and other than the basic plot, it’s a pretty different movie. With that said, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 is a pretty taut thriller and I do recommend seeing it. But also, if you haven’t seen the 1974 original and like to watch 70s films, then by all means if you have the chance, catch that as well…