The Taking of Pelham 123 (review)

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Tunnel Vision

Forget about the 1974 movie of the same name. I’m not putting it down: I’m saying, Whether you’ve seen it or not, whether you like it or not, doesn’t matter. This nominal remake (same title, same premise, mega-updated for 21st-century NYC and 21st-century movies)? It’s good. Damn good. Like this good: I’ve been waiting for a Die Hard movie to actually come close to approximating the spectacular cinematic experience that Die Hard was more than 20 years back, and the 2009 Taking of Pelham 123 is the first movie to get real close to that.
It’s always a question when it comes to remakes: Why remake this particular movie, and why remake it now? And director Tony Scott (Deja Vu, Domino) and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire , The Order) — working from the same novel by John Godey [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] that was the basis for the first film — have exactly the right answer: Because there’s something new to say today through this same basic story than there could possibly have been to say back then. What this new Pelham has to say isn’t anything profoundly deep, and it’s not anything that couldn’t have been said, probably, through an original story. But the filmmakers don’t want to write a thesis: they’re just want to give us a ripping good action movie that isn’t stupid, that has a little bit of something to chew on in between the car crashes and the gunshots. And in this they succeed marvelously.

It’s all about 9/11, of course: the reason why this story about the hijacking of a New York City subway train is worth retelling now. And it’s also about how mass media and mass communications have changed in the 35 years since this story was first told. A scheme to hold ordinary New Yorkers for ransom in the subway would have to be planned and executed differently today than it would have been before cell phones and blanket wifi and the Internet and 24-hour news. And it would play out differently, too, not only for the characters in the movie but for us in the audience, too. Conspiracy-theory culture and the concept of terrorism not as random violence but as theater designed to create very specific reactions among those watching inform not only the actions of the people onscreen but shape our reactions as we watch.

So we suspect right off the bat that “Ryder” (John Travolta: Bolt, Hairspray), the mastermind of this hijacking, is up to something beyond the “mere” acquisition of $10 million in ransom when he arranges for a No. 6 train to be stopped in the middle of a subway tunnel in Midtown by his machine gun-toting gang. (The designation “Pelham 123” comes not from the number of the line this particular train runs along but from its origin: the Pelham Bay Park terminus in the Bronx, from which it departed at 1:23pm.) And it’s not too long before we begin to suspect that perhaps the Metropolitan Transit Authority dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington: The Great Debaters, American Gangster), who takes the call from the hijacked train may be in on the scheme. I’m not gonna tell you any more than that except to say that the deep cynicism on display — which is not, however, an inaccurate representation of New York City or, indeed, our mindset on the whole today — is equally balanced by a deep hopefulness… and not in a hope-for-the-future way, either.

No, what makes Pelham 123 work so well is that it looks and feels entirely Noo Yawk. Part of that is that Tony Scott shot in NYC, in actual subway tunnels, with New York actors with real New York faces in roles big and small. (There’s only a teeny smidge of faking: one police car is the wrong color, I think; for sure, one subway sign was added where there isn’t one.) And the result of that is that the film mirrors the calm pragmatism of New York, as a city full of ordinary people doing ordinary extraordinary jobs. If anything might allay the fear some non-New Yorkers (and some natives, too!) seem to have of the subway, surely it’s Washington’s supremely competent MTA dispatcher and the high-tech world in which he operates to help keep hundreds of subway cars moving simultaneously. At one point, the mayor (James Gandolfini: Surviving Christmas, The Last Castle) tells another character that the city will be going to bat for him, and follows that with “This city has a very good batting average” — and that sums up the film. It’s about a city with a very good batting average, and god help the bad guy who thinks he’s gonna get a home run against it.

All of that, however, happens within the confines of a rollicking tale that unspools in urgent real time, over the course of just a few hours, and is jam-packed with literally breathtaking action. I didn’t mean to dismiss the car crashes and gunshots above: Tony Scott is a master of frenetic, energetic cinema — he’s like Michael Bay without something to prove, and anyone who fails to understand why car crashes and gun battles can be so exciting onscreen when they’re done right needs to see Scott doing it right. If life-size police cars and motorcycles are merely toys for big-boy filmmakers to play with, Scott makes it so much fun that there were times when I did indeed catch my breath — Scott makes you forget that we’re supposed to be inured to all this stuff by now.

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Sat, Jun 13, 2009 11:28am

Um, your baseball analogy would make more sense if you ended it with ” and god help the bad guy who thinks he’s gonna pitch a no-hitter against it.”

Just saying. ;P

Sat, Jun 13, 2009 12:22pm

i think it should go: and God help any criminal who thinks he’s going to strike it(us) out.

in any case, it’s a good flick, well-acted and well put together. i’m surprised at its RT rating, but i’ve never seen the original so i have nothing upon which to stand and look down on the remake.

Tony Scott is batting about .500 in my book.

Sat, Jun 13, 2009 12:51pm

i don’t know about this i loved the dirty new york feel of the first one and the score is fantastic too

can you beat robert shaw as the baddie?

or the funny last shoot of Matthau’s face?

Mon, Jun 15, 2009 8:35pm

I liked the dark, worn, noir feel of the first one. Shaw as the steely cold leader is excellent.
Travolta seems to be over-acting as usual. Washington yells “Get out of the way!” out from a cab of a speeding truck. Zzzzzzz…… .

Tue, Jun 16, 2009 2:07am

I’m surprised at this. The trailer sucked so hard; it looked so cheesy and self-important that I had absolutely no intention of seeing it. Maybe I’ll catch the DVD now…

Thu, Jun 18, 2009 2:32am

Saw this yesterday, and it’s gotta be one of the worst thrillers ever made. It reeks of mediocrity, with a third act that feels like it was made up on the spot — coincidence after coincidence does not a plot make.

I’m not sure how exactly MaryAnn was able to divorce herself from her brain function… it might’ve been the on-location NYC stuff? But those comparisons to Die Hard are wildly inappropriate.

Consider if, in the pivitol scene, where Bruce Willis has to give up his machine gun to Hans and the other guy, but instead of having the pistol taped to his back, he suddenly sees it, lying on the floor next to him. That’s how Pelham works.


At one point, Denzel eludes John Travolta by hiding behind a concrete post, and then Travolta says “Aw, he’s gone!” and they LEAVE. Just like that. This is after, of course, one of the bad guys accidentally drops the only money bag that has a gun hidden in it, so Denzel can grab said gun real fast in the “confusion” of a couple passing trains. (Also that bag is the only one with the bright purple plastic tie on the handle).

Also this one time a fucking rat bites a sniper who then accidentally shoots a guy. This starts a firefight on the train in which nobody else gets killed, and five minutes later things are back to the way they were as if nothing happened.

There’s a laptop broadcasting the entire thing live to the internet, an interesting plot thread that makes absolutely zero sense — if Travolta is so focused on keeping track of how things are going how does he not notice this online? But then you realize “oh, it’s just a red herring” because absolutely nothing comes of it.


In short: Complete bullshit.

The only thing even remotely interesting or believable was the early stuff with Denzel and Travolta on the radio, but even that is soiled by the horrible, awful, really bad rest of it.

I railed against being offended by movies on another page, but I’m pretty close to abandoning my entire position and declaring Pelham 123 the most offensive movie I’ve ever seen. God, I hate it so much!


We gotta work on your Action Movie radar, MaryAnn. Both Wolverine and this get green lights, but Terminator gets a red?

Go grab your Steven Seagal DVDs, my child, it’s time for school!

Erik Goodwyn
Erik Goodwyn
Fri, Jun 19, 2009 12:06am

Well, I agree with MJ I thought it was a solid thriller, mainly propelled by the solid acting on Travolta and Washington’s parts.

By the way, MJ, if you haven’t you need to see Outlander. It’s a sleeper barely released to theaters involving Jim Caviezel as an intersteller hunter crash landing with a nasty monster in 8th century Norway. You know, vikings versus alien predator! Sound ludicrous? It is, but it’s actually really well done–very 13th Warrior like. I think you’d love it.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Mon, Aug 24, 2009 1:52pm

Well, I didn’t hate it the way Mewbs did but I didn’t love it as much as MJ, either.

Perhaps because I don’t live in NYC, don’t aspire to live in NYC and have seen this whole “the villain is really a you-know-what” twist used too many times before. (At least they didn’t make him a cop.) However, I suppose I should give the movie bonus points for ripping off Daniel Craig’s version of Casino Royale without being way too obvious about it.

On the other hand, the friend with whom I saw this movie liked it despite having seen the original on TV. Of course, she didn’t really remember the original but still…

And if you wish to argue that I’m just biased against this film because they made one bad guy Catholic, well, I must point out that one of my favorite movies of all time is The Godfather and I’m pretty sure there’s some villainous Catholics in that flick.