“THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) Review

”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) Review

Tony Scott’s new version of John Godey’s 1973 novel, ”The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” marked the third time Hollywood released a version of the crime drama about the hijacking of a New York City subway train. The first version, directed by Joseph Sargent, featured Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Nineteen eighty-eight saw the release of a television version that starred Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. I barely remember the 1974 version and I have never seen the 1998 version. But since I recently saw this new version, I might as well give my two-cents on the movie.

In ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” (2009) , Denzel Washington portrays a MTA dispatcher named Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who is assigned to the Rail Control Center due to an ongoing investigation that he took a bribe to recommend a Japanese car manufacturer for the next subway car contract. It is Garber who ends up as the liaison between the New York Police Department/the Mayor’s Office and a man named “Ryder” (John Travolta) who has led three other men to board one of the MTA trains and hijack in exchange for $10 million dollars in ransom money. Also in the cast are John Turturro as Lieutenant Camonett of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit, who guides Garber into communicating with “Ryder”; Luis Guzmán as Phil Ramos (a.k.a. “Mr. Green”), one of the hijackers; and James Gandolfini as an unpopular mayor of New York City, who is under heavy pressure to address the hostage crisis.

Since my memories of the 1974 version is vague, I might as well express my view of the movie. In a nutshell, it was a solid and decent movie that had the good luck to possess a decent script written by Oscar winner, Brian Helgeland (”L.A. CONFIDENTIAL”). Yes, Helgeland made changes not only from the original novel, but also from the 1974 movie. That was to be expected . . . even though I have no idea what the changes are. Wait a minute. I am aware of one particular change. The Walter Garber character portrayed by Walter Matthau was a transit cop. Not that I care, since I have very vague memories of the movie. And for once, Tony Scott’s penchant for MTV style direction did not bother me. I thought it mixed well with the movie’s story. However . . . the sequence that featured the NYPD’s attempt to deliver the ransom money through the streets of Manhattan struck me as slightly ridiculous and over-the-top . . . especially with the number of car crashes that occurred this scene. As one character had put it – why not deliver the money via helicopter? The audience would have been spared that ridiculous scene. And one last scene annoyed me. It had to do with Garber’s attempts to track down and arrest “Ryder” and recover the ransom money. I thought it was a silly and contrived scene. But I must admit that I enjoyed how Scott captured the kinetic energy of Manhattan and kept the movie’s pace from moving too fast or two slow. ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” struck me as a well-paced film.

At least four performances in the movie managed to catch my attention. I found James Gandolfini’s performance as an unpopular mayor rather sharp and funny, and a nice departure from his some of his heavier past roles – including Tony Soprano. Another amusing performance came from Luis Guzman as one of the hijackers, Phil Ramos. Whereas the other hijackers – including Travolta – projected an over-the-top menace, Guzman gave a restrained and funny performance. John Turturro’s performance as the police hostage negotiator was also restrained, subtle . . . and intelligent. And last, but not least, I was very impressed by Denzel Washington’s performance as the MTA dispatcher forced into dealing with an erratic and dangerous hijacker. Like Guzman and Turturro, he gave a very restrained performance and did an excellent job in keeping in character with an ordinary man, dragged into an extraordinary situation. Washington also gave the best performance in a scene that featured “Ryder” forcing Garber to confess to the charges of bribery, in order to save the life of one of the hostages. The one performance that troubled me happened to be that of John Travolta as “Ryder”, leader of the hijackers. Not only was it over-the-top, it was the kind of performance he had given several times in the past in movies like ”BROKEN ARROW” and ”FACE-OFF”. Back in the 90s, these flashy performances were fun and amusing. In 2009, I found it a little tiresome. At least he was convincing as an intelligent and dangerous man.

Judging from other comments and reviews I have read about this film, many seem quite willing to dismiss it as a crappy film. As far as I am concerned, ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” is not crap. Granted, it is not the best action thriller I have seen, because I have seen better ones. But I do believe that it is a pretty solid and entertaining movie that should not be dismissed, because it is not exceptional. But I can see the writing on the wall. Chances are it will fail at the box office. Too bad. ”THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3” may not be a masterpiece, but I think that it is a hell of a lot better than a very mediocre movie like ”STAR TREK”, which managed to get rave reviews.

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