DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Taking of Pelham 123

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Taking of Pelham 123

Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) dir. Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro


The original film is left untarnished and unscathed from competition from this pseudo remake. Just about the only aspect which remains from the original other than the name and the subway locale is the core relationship of hero and villain. So what. I have no problems with films getting remade as few if any films are precious enough to be left alone. I even welcomed Gus Van Sant’s ‘Psycho’.

So I approached ‘The Taking of Pelham 123” with as much optimism as any film. And, if anything, it’s the languishing creativity of Tony Scott in recent years which made me suspect this film could ever be done well.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber a working class dispatcher controlling the trains of New York City’s labyrinthian subway system. One day, a crackerjack burglar and his henchmen take over a subway car and hold the passengers as ransom for $10million. Over the course of the day, the burglar, who calls himself Ryder, develops an attachment to Garber’s calm demeanor over the phone who thus becomes the mediating voice between the cops and robbers.

Headed by narrow-minded hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro), the cops use all their skills to free the hostages, but really wind up just getting in the way. Of course Ryder’s got a plan and he seems to be one step ahead of everyone – except Garber. His working class instincts and need for professional redemption turn Garber from an ordinary bystander into an gun-toting action hero.

It all makes for a decent second tier summer blockbuster, better than most of Scott’s recent films, but a long way away from touching the cleverness of the original, or even many of the numerous ‘Die Hard’-influenced pre-9/11 terrorist films of the 1990’s.

Travolta and Denzel make a good pairing. Washington’s accessible everyman likeability infused with his low key sardonic superior coolness shines through. It’s by far Travolta’s best role in 10 years, coiffed to look badass with his jailhouse tats and pencil-thin tough guy fu-manchu, we sense an emotional vulnerability beneath. And indeed writer Brian Helgeland peppers in a backstory of a fall from grace for his character into a hardened, cynical terrorist with a death wish.

Like the original much of the film takes place in a number of phone conversations between the two adversaries. Tony Scott films both locations well, although the prevalence of the oversaturated green lighting look feels so 2001. Helgeland’s intimate screenplay would seem to run counter to Scott’s penchant for mondo action. And indeed, on the DVD special features one of Scott tells us one of his goals was to inject the original story with the aggression of steroids. Scott’s rat-a-tat shooting style is blanketed over the material. He even manufactures a car chase out of nothing, complete with car crashes, explosions, and flipping vehicles.

In the end, its surprisingly conventional plotting, without any twists or turns. Ridiculous plot holes, hanging narrative threads and logic inconsistencies abound in virtually every corner of the script, but under the filter of the Hollywood blockbuster gloss machine, its not that bad.

"Taking of Pelham 123" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

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