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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 17, 2009

    The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Review
    Remakes, remakes, remakes. It may be popular for big studios to greenlight every potential Hollywood remake, but even the biggest names - both actors and directors - seem to get involved too. Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro did a solid Cape Fear remake nearly twenty years ago, and more recently Scorsese has done the enjoyable but totally pointless Infernal Affairs remake too, The Departed. Whilst I can understand - to a certain extent - why they remade the 60s Robert Mitchum / Gregory Peck thriller Cape Fear, I cannot see why Infernal Affairs needed Hollywood's grubby hands all over it. Don't get me wrong, there is a time and a place for remakes - Kurosawa's Yojimbo may be superior, but the Leone/Eastwood Fistful of Dollars remake offered a nice twist with the upgrade from samurai swords to pistols. Conversely, Bruce Willis' Last Man Standing (the second remake of Yojimbo) was nothing more than a b-movie actioner, offering nothing new to the concept.

    Neither acclaimed Director Tony 'Crimson Tide' Scott nor his protégé, Oscar-winner Denzel 'Training Day' Washington had had much experience with Hollywood remakes until a few years ago when they collaborated for the excellent revenge thriller Man on Fire. Considering the lacklustre original '70s version of Man on Fire, it was well overdue for an upgrade, and the Scott/Washington dynamic duo did a superb job, not only giving it a shiny new coat of paint, but also adding something new to the mix, making it the definitive adaptation of the book upon which both films were based. Now they have teamed up for a remake of the '70s Walther Matthau / Robert Shaw thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Whilst it was, admittedly, botched completely in its '90s TV version, the story of Pelham is a solid one, and - although a few decades old - the original is nevertheless a bona fide classic. They may have got the formula right for Man on Fire, but remaking a classic like Pelham is arguably an unnecessary - and thus potentially stupid - move. So, how did it pay off?

    When a New York City subway train is hijacked and its passengers taken hostage, train dispatcher Walther Garber answers the call to the leader of the criminals, Ryder, who is looking for ten million dollars in order to secure the hostage's release. With the Mayor and the money on the way, Ryder's strict timetable puts the pressure on Garber to make it all happen and ensure nobody dies, but how can the police hope to take down the heavily armed gang with all those hostages' lives on the line? And how can Ryder hope to escape the well-monitored tunnels and evade capture even if he does get the money?

    Ignoring its origins as a classic 70s crime thriller, Tony Scott's updating of Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a solid, tense dialogue-driven hostage/heist movie that will likely leave you engrossed throughout. Despite the limited setting - the majority of the story involves Garber and Ryder going back and forth over the radio channel, each restricted to their train car/ subway dispatch office locations - the film works extremely well, keeping you gripped and making you wonder what is going to happen next. Although Scott's trademark flashy editing and MTV style seems quite jarring at first (the credits sequence is over-the-top), it helps to spice things up in an otherwise very limited setting, and the casting of Denzel Washington and John Travolta works extremely well, their tete-a-tete banter holding the whole thing together.

    Oddly, things only start to get a bit predictable once the duo leave their respective locations and get into the action-packed final act, the story going marginally off the rails and ploughing through to what is something of a foregone and anticlimactic conclusion. However, up until that point things are pretty good, and whilst it remains overall an unexceptional thriller - nothing that particularly stands out above its peers - it is a solid one nonetheless.

    Addressing the whole remake issue, this becomes an entirely different kettle of fish. Having recently seen the 1974 Walter Matthau/Robert Shaw thriller it was difficult not to draw more comparisons than I would like from an updating of the story. Basically, if you have recently seen the original movie, then you know exactly what it going to happen. Sure, they've thrown a few modern ideas into the mix - cell phones, web-cams, laptops and so forth - but all of the consequential plot points are exactly the same, right down to the ending. Character motivations and portrayal may differ slightly, they may have tried to crow-bar in a couple of unnecessary twists, but essentially this is just the same movie with a glossy new lick of paint.

    Ultimately, this is where I see remakes fail the most - in telling exactly the same story, only twenty or thirty years later. And this isn't a case of The Thing or The Fly, where effects allow the Director's imagination to run wild; or Ocean's Eleven, where the original was just a bad movie, Pelham was a solid thriller in 1974, and the 2009 reworking merely opens up the same story, characters, and plot twists to a modern audience who either haven't gotten around to watching it, or don't like to watch movies that are 'old'. In this respect, it is a fairly redundant offering, a prime example of the 'Psycho syndrome' - i.e. remaking a classic, almost scene for scene.

    That said, I could not help but be engaged by the first two acts of the movie, where the Brian 'Payback' Helgeland-penned dialogue worked wonders for the tension, and developed the characters enough that you actually gave a damn about them. Forget the hostages on the train, or the other members of the criminal gang, or even the entourage of train operators and eager police beavers, the Travolta/Washington scenes were the only moments that set this movie a cut above its ilk. Whilst I loved everyday-man subway manager Walther Matthau (playing it straight) facing off against the Robert Shaw's consummately professional robber, the interplay here is arguably just as good - if not better - between the two leads.

    It may be hard to accept Washington stepping out of his usual tough, dominant hero persona (particularly with Man on Fire, Training Day and in mind), but he is a quality actor and - about thirty minutes in - he finally proves that he can play a vulnerable civil servant as convincingly as he can an ex-mercenary. And to be honest, it is quite refreshing seeing Washington try something a little different, as his last couple of efforts - American Gangster and Déjà Vu - have felt a little too 'standard' for someone of his capabilities. Travolta is the real revelation, however, as he has a much more hit-and-miss film career, with his last few movies proving to be more hit than miss. He hasn't really had this much fun - or been this enjoyable to watch - as a villain since Face/Off, and things certainly bode well for the man with the trailer for his upcoming film, From Paris with Love, looking pretty exciting. Rounding off the cast we get solid supporting roles for a post-Sopranos James Galdolfini and John Turturro, taking a break from showing us his ass (and acting like one) in the Transformers movies.

    All in all, Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is sure to engage newer generation audiences for its duration, playing out as a solid if unexceptional thriller, albeit with exceptional exchanges between its two lead characters/actors. It neither proves the rule that remakes should be avoided, nor stands out as a distinct exception to it. Tony Scott continues to give us flashy, stylish and exciting thrillers, and his work with Denzel Washington marks a very solid if only seldom remarkable chapter in both of their careers. Even if it is not likely to have a huge amount of rewatch value, or likely to particularly sit in audiences' memories for any significant period of time, it probably touches on an 8 for its distinct watchability and sheer entertainment value, only coming down to a solid 7 due to its inherent lack of originality. An enjoyable, stylish but ultimately redundant thriller.