Though it’s a remake, The Taking of Pelham 123 has an intriguing pedigree. It’s written by Brian Helgeland [L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory, and Mystic River among other things] and directed by Tony Scott [Top Gun, True Romance and Deja Vu – but also The Fan and Domino], whose career hasn’t been exactly hot of late. The Talking of Pelham 123 may make Scott an in demand director again and it certainly won’t hurt Helgeland’s career, either.
It doesn’t seem like a particularly bad day for Walter Garber [Denzel Washington]. He’s running a section of dispatch for the New York City subway and things are going smoothly. We know that’s going to change because we see a series of quick cuts with determined looking men boarding a particular train – one of them is Ryder [John Travolta]. An unexpected moment of violence puts their plan into action a bit early, but it goes smoothly and the determined men take control of the train.
In the control center, Garber sees the related weirdness going on and eventually [a matter of minutes, actually] Ryder calls in and makes his demand: ten million dollars plus a penny in ransom for the seventeen passengers and captured motorman. He gives them one hour to provide the cash before he starts killing hostages at the rate of one a minute until they get him the money.
For all the maneuvering and flashy camerawork, The Taking of Pelham 123 is a duel between two men – one who taken hostages and made demands – and one who is not in his usual position and trying to make the best of a horrible situation. Scott and Helgeland acknowledge that New York is a different city is a different place than it was in the seventies when the original film was made. That point is made, subtly by the behavior of the passengers before the hostage-taking; the use of technology that didn’t exist then, and by faking us out with the terrorist card.
If not brilliant, the film is a much better than average thriller with Ryder becoming more and more nutso over its course as Garber becomes more and more centered. Each of the men has secrets that play into the situation with greatly differing results [let’s just say that there’s a good reason for Ryder to be so over the top, just as there’s a really good reason for Garber to become more and more anchored]. Scott is one of the best at building suspense and he does some really good work setting up things for the climax that I guarantee you won’t see coming.
John Turturro and James Gandolfini give their roles [a host negotiator and the mayor of New York respectively] more depth than you usually get in the supporting roles of a suspense thriller. Michael Rispoli has the thankless task of playing Garber’s supervisor and does what he can with the role – some of his best stuff is seen Garber’s position – talking to the negotiator, but unheard by Garber, or us. It’s just one of a number of small bits [including the use of a computer we see on the train] that contributes that little extra detail that makes The Taking of Pelham 123 so much fun.
Final Grade: B+