Sony // 2009 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // November 3rd, 2009
New York City is about to be taken for a ride!
Denzel Washington (Inside Man) re-teams with Director Tony Scott (Man on Fire) for this update of the gritty 1970's thriller of the same name. John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) tags along for the ride, with a strong supporting cast of character actors. Is this remake worth the fare, or is this one train you should miss?
An ordinary day for Metro Transit Authority dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) turns chaotic, when a group of armed men led by the enigmatic Ryder (John Travolta) take it upon themselves to seize a New York City subway car and its 18 passengers. His demands are simple: $10 Million dollars in cash in one hour, or a hostage dies every minute.
Garber is pulled into the events even further, when Ryder chooses him as his liaison and authorities scramble to find a solution. Garber does what he can to control the situation, but time is running out and Ryder isn't interested in negotiation.
In today's remake-fueled Hollywood environs, one could be pardoned if they rolled their eyes and instantly dismissed the news that a gritty '70s thriller (and Tarantino favorite) was getting a 21st century spit-shine. I have fond memories of the Walter Matthau-led original, and this particular version was barely registering on my moviedar. It turns out that Tony Scott's re-imaging falls into the same camp as James Mangold's take on 3:10 To Yuma -- it's not only a watchable attempt, but a damn good one that stands toe-to-toe with its predecessor!
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 finds its biggest strength in the cast. Denzel Washington plays the flawed everyman to perfection, and I must say I enjoy his performances more and more these days. He plays Garber as conflicted, and we can easily see the strain the day's events are taking on him. He stammers and hesitates, hanging on by the skin of his teeth. He's a far cry from the gruff and assured character Matthau portrayed in the original. John Travolta, meanwhile, is in full on villain mode. This is a far cry from recent outings. This is the Travolta that got notices in films like Broken Arrow and Face/Off. He rips through scenery like a circular saw, drops F-bombs with aplomb, and goes gleefully over the top without ever hitting that "cheese" barrier. His Ryder is a man of action and unpredictable violence. Travolta has taken his lumps in recent years, but he redeems himself here with one hell of a great bad guy.
The supporting cast is led most notably by John Tuturro (Transformers), who plays it pretty cool as a NYPD hostage negotiator clearly outclassed by Ryder -- and, in a rare breath of fresh air for this sort of picture, he actually acknowledges it. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) also dials things down, in his portrayal of a New York City mayor who's got just the right mix of nice guy and sleazeball. Both are solid characters, played well by solid character actors.
The other big strength is the screenplay. Pelham 1 2 3 hits the ground running and never lets up or distracts with needless subplots and side roads. While logic does take a backseat, it's never tossed completely out of the window, and Scott's direction is such that we really feel as though we're chucked headlong into the situation. It doesn't hurt that the actors all do a great job of selling us on their characters. There's nothing in these two hours that ever takes us out of the movie, no hard right character turns or crappy line deliveries that betray the film. It's a lean movie that sticks well to the task at hand.
In this era that's brought us a PG-13 rated Die Hard sequel, it's worth noting that The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 wears its R-rating like a badge of honor. The action is visceral, with plenty of juicy bullet hits and pottymouths galore. It may not mean a lot to most, but it's nice to see an action film in the mold of the best stuff from the '80s and '90s, with some A-list talent and no concern for pulling teen audiences into a theatre.
Sony has done an admirable job with the DVD treatment. The picture is great, with nary a flaw to be found. The colors are vibrant, and the clarity is as good as it gets on DVD. Tony Scott's less than reserved camera trickery translates fine to home video. The 5.1 audio is equally great, with some thundering surround action, nice gunfire, and some good separation for Harry Gregson-William's primarily rock driven score.
The extras on the disc are pretty substantial. Tony Scott provides his own commentary, which (much like those of his older brother) makes for some interesting listening. Writer Brian Helgeland (Payback) gets his own track, which doesn't have quite the same appeal. Also included are a few featurettes, all of which run pretty brief and feel a little fluffy.
As much as I enjoyed the film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 feels like something from a bygone era of Hollywood. If someone had told me this flick had come out in 1996, I'd have believed them. It's of the same pedigree as films like The Rock and Bad Boys, though it's better executed than either of those Michael Bay outings. It's definitely not a new take on the action genre, and for those who dislike the glossier action films of the mid to late-'90s, there's nothing here that's going to change your mind. So while Helgeland's script is well executed, and Scott's direction is solid, the movie really doesn't have an original bone in its body. It was a non-issue for me, as I've been pining for this sort of big budget, no frills, hard R action outing since the first half of this decade. Other action fans will feel the same, but everyone else will be ambivalent.
There's nothing in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 that we haven't seen before, and yet everything is so well executed that it's hard to fault the film for it. It's a tight action-thriller that plays perfectly to its strengths. Action junkies will be pleased, and fans of the original should be satisfied without being offended.
Free to go!
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cinema Verdict Review