The Taking of Pelham 123 (review)

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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