Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

pelham 1 2 3 onesheetWhenever I review a remake I like to start out saying whether or not I liked the original and in this case, I definitely need to disclose that I loved the original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw as the protagonist and antagonist, respectively. It ranks as one of the best crime dramas of the mid-70s, with a story line that surprises the viewer more than once, an ingenious escape for the subway kidnappers, and a beautiful denouement that ends the film.

The original is also rather surprisingly non-violent, though it’s gritty and quite tense. More importantly, there are some interesting ambiguities in the story that leave you wondering how things are going to transpire, but never quite seem to trip up the criminals as you would expect.
The Tony Scott-directed remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 features two big Hollywood stars, Denzel Washington (as MTA transit controller Walter Garber) and John Travolta (as the criminal mastermind Ryder). Unfortunately, both walk through their roles with precious little engagement, which leaves us as viewers uninvolved with the story itself. 
In fact, there’s a curious lack of emotional engagement and acting on the part of everyone in this film, most notably the hostages who seem oddly blasé about being held hostage by a crazed kidnapper who demonstrates more than once his willingness to kill innocent people in cold blood.

The story is exciting: a New York subway train that’s hijacked en route from Pelham Parkway station to Coney Island. Like other hijacking situations, we’re puzzled by the logic of the criminals because how the heck do they think they’re going to get away?  On a plane it’s tricky, but stuck underground in a subway tunnel?  It’s insane. Or is it?
Tony Scott has a signature style that you’re familiar with if you’ve seen the film Deja Vu (which also featured Denzel Washington and also had a story line that broke down as the film progressed), Spy Game (one of his best films) or Enemy of the State (which was an entertaining sequel/remake of another splendid 70’s crime film, The Conversation). They’re all characterized by blurry camera-in-motion action that never lets us get comfortable in the scene and that eventually prove tiring in the same way that the “cameraphone” POV gimmick in Cloverfield got old really, really fast.
At its most fundamental, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a three-shot film, alternating between Denzel in the subway control room, Travolta on the hostage train and various police driving as fast as they can through crowded Manhattan streets, crashing into things, flipping over, and creating tension for us as the viewers. At times it’s wonderfully effective and the film is genuinely exciting, leaving us unsure what’s going to happen and whether hijacker-imposed deadlines are going to be met or not.
Within this structural framework are stupid variations, however. In one situation the police are able to assure the mayor that they can “cover every subway stop between here and Coney Island” and in other scenes it’s all up to a half-dozen motorcycle cops to ensure that a key vehicle makes it from one end of the city to another. In a third scene, lo and behold, they finally use a helicopter so they can avoid all the traffic. 
SPOILER ALERT: In the original, the criminals argue amongst themselves, but they’re not stupid. In the remake, every criminal but Travolta is a completely git, and the two in the main subway car never notice the laptop on the floor that’s presumably showing a hostage’s girlfriend watching her screen with great alarm?  Then the whole back and forth about whether the boy who is a hostage can say he loves his girlfriend or not?  Holy cow, WTH were they thinking when they kept that in the film rather than dropping it where it belonged, on the cutting room floor?
There’s a major difference in the feel and level of efficiency of the police force in the two versions of the film too: in the original, the police investigation that transpires simultaneous to the hostage crisis is key to the identification of the criminals. In the new film, the police are either pointless (as exemplified by John Tarturo, who plays NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti, one of the few interesting roles in the film but a character that isn’t developed at all) or are able to perform police work so quickly and efficiently that they are no longer important to the storyline. In a hostage drama?

Finally, throughout The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Walter Matthau is an earnest New Yorker, transit employee and regular guy. He never steps out of role and is thereby quite believable and a splendid protagonist. In the new film, Denzel Washington turns into supercop during the last ten minutes of the movie in a way that probably sounded great when he read the script, but doesn’t play well on screen at all.

I loved the original film and I enjoyed the remake. I enjoy both Denzel Washington and John Travolta as actors, and certainly have liked many of Tony Scott’s recent films. But all of them together just didn’t add up to a great film – or even a great thriller – in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

One comment on “Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

  1. Pretty darn spot-on review, I’d have to say, sir. While I enjoyed this film, perhaps slightly more than you did, Dave, I now have to admit that upon further inspection, it did have some issues. Also being a fan of the original film, I think that Tony Scott was quite effective in making his own film, completely divergent from what had gone before. Was he successful in remaking it . . . “better?” I’d have to say no. Again, I enjoyed the new, as a suspenseful journey, but it lacked some of the substance and quality acting of the ’74 jaunt.

    Thanks for the invite! Seeing films with the COFilms crew is always a pleasure. I look forward to our next flick. Perhaps: ‘Moon?’

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