THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) is a contemporary update on the 1974 film of the same name. While largely a forgettable film, it’s notable within Tony Scott’s canon as his only remake. Not having seen the original, I can’t speak for the remake’s quality in regards to its parent’s, but I can say that Scott’s film was produced at the height of the (still-ongoing) remake craze that gripped much of contemporary studio filmmaking in the late aughts. Like others of its ilk, it’s a mediocre affair made distinctive only by Scott’s personal aesthetic.
I had incredibly low expectations of this film going into my first viewing of it a few days ago, and while I wasn’t blown away by the end result, it was more entertaining than I was willing to give it credit for. The film follows a fast-talking terrorist (unfortunately) named Ryder (John Travolta), who hijacks a NYC subway train and holds its passengers for ransom. It all comes down to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), an MTA traffic operator reluctantly drawn into the crisis, who must negotiate with the wildly unpredictable Ryder for the hostages’ safe return.
Despite the formulaic script, the actors make the best of the scenario and commit fully to Scott’s vision. In his fourth collaboration with Scott, Washington eschews his handsome leading-man aura to play a schlubby, unconfident guy caught in a high stress situation. Thankfully, he is given a morally murky backstory of his own, which comes to light during the course of the movie, and makes the character of Garber much more compelling. Washington disappears into the role, which is about as good a compliment as you can give an actor. Conversely…..John Travolta. Man, what is up with that facial hair? Whoever is to blame for that monstrosity needs to have their thinking privileges revoked. His performance fares slightly better, channeling the high energy, manic whackjob character he played in John Woo’s FACE/OFF (1997). Like Garber, Ryder is given some depth in the form of a twisted code of honor, but he ultimately falls prey to the same tired villain cliches (“I’ll die before I go back to prison!”).
The supporting cast is filled out with some interesting faces. PT Anderson company performer Luis Guzman shows up as a disgraced MTA conductor and the brain of Ryder’s operation (which we later get to see sprayed against the subway walls). Despite hiding behind a thick nose bandage and yellow sunglasses, he is essentially playing himself. John Turturro gives a subdued, buttoned-up performance as a hostage negotiator for the NYPD who has to impotently coach Garber in negotiation tactics when Ryder demands to speak only to him. James Gandolfini, in his third Scott film appearance, channels Rudy Giuliani in his incarnation of NYC’s Mayor. It’s a strong performance that’s a mix between Tony Soprano, Giuliani, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In a nice touch of humor, he’s shown not to be a fan of The Yankees, his city’s biggest baseball team. Perhaps he’s a Mets guy?
Scott continues the general toning-down of his aesthetic, allowing the story to dictate the images. Working with Director of Photography Tobias Schlesinger, Scott maintains an image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors. Together, they use a color palette that changes for each key location- warm tones for exterior city shots, cold blu-ish/neutral tones in the MTA operations center, and steel-green under the fluorescent lights of the subway car. Scott’s usual camera moves are all present- rack zooms, helicopter-based establishing shots, circular dollies, punchy close-ups, etc. Camera work ranges between handheld and locked-down, favoring traditional, stabilized compositions. Scott even finds opportunities to throw in visual tricks like dynamic subtitles and timestamp freeze-frames.
Scott’s love for surveillance imagery is incorporated via a live video chat subplot involving a girl watching her boyfriend’s captivity on her laptop. (It’s a little implausible that one can get an internet signal down there, but whatever. HOLLYWOOD!) A few new visual tricks are introduced, beginning with the slow expansion of the studio logos to fill the entire frame, as well a Google-Earth like map of NYC that whooshes the story from one place to the next. The editing, whenever possible, reflects the relentless onslaught of an incoming subway train. Other visual elements, like a lens flare or a rack zoom, are accompanied by a dramatic sound effect (usually the sounds of the subway). What little flash the movie does have going for it is evident mainly in Scott’s visual rendering.
Harry Gregson-Williams continues his collaboration with Scott on the score, creating yet another work in a string of wholly unmemorable soundtracks. To be sure, the score is effective in the context of the film, and helps sell the stakes, but I literally can’t remember a single note from it. What I do remember, however, is Scott’s use of a (heavily chopped and edited) Jay-Z track during the opening credits. “99 Problems” blares as the city of New York rushes by and spotlights Ryder walking purposefully through the crowds. Is it the best use of Jay Z’s song? No. Does it fit with the tone Scott is trying to convey? Sure. Does it set the stage for a high-energy crime flick? You bet.
As Scott’s penultimate feature film, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is a minor entry in an impressive, yet scattershot oeuvre. It’s an effective action film, but nothing more. Another case of style over substance, if you will. While Scott’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for this film.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Sony Pictures.