Review of 'The Taking of Pelham 123'

"The Taking of Pelham 123." Tony Scott, director. Sony Pictures, 121 minutes. Rated R for language and violence.

In 1994 a quiet, unassuming, former computer systems analyst for a large investment firm built several gasoline bombs out of mayonnaise jars and alarm clock timers, intending to deposit them in subway trains around New York City and then hold the city hostage until his grievances were heard and ransom was paid. He had successfully detonated one bomb and was on his way to delivering another when it accidentally exploded while he was carrying it, injuring himself and 47 other passengers. He is now serving 94 years in Sing Sing.

I couldn’t help but think about the Subway Bomber while watching the current remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123," in which John Travolta plays Ryder, a crazed gunman who obviously knows a lot about securities, commodities, and the stock exchange and doesn’t seem one bit happy about how life has been treating him.  At a time when Wall Street traders have become the nation’s favorite enemy, this additional background adds a new dimension to the villain and gives the story a timely and sassy facelift. (Robert Shaw’s Ryder was a mercenary soldier in the 1974 version of the film.) The new film is also updated with technology that could not have been imagined in 1974, including cell phones, internet coverage, streaming videos, online trading capabilities, and even a laptop conversation on Skype between a young hostage and his girlfriend.

The premise of "The Taking of Pelham 123" is simple: four criminals have commandeered a subway train, taking a carload of passengers hostage. If their ransom demand ($1 million in the 1974 version, $10 million in 2009) is not met within one hour, they will begin shooting the hostages one by one.

In both films the mayor, who must authorize payment of the ransom, is portrayed as cynical, uncaring, and ineffectual, motivated not by heroism but by his handlers’ concern for good press. James Gandolfini in the current film bears an uncanny resemblance to Rudy Giuliani, and the film even includes a dig at the mayor’s affair and divorce, although the similarity is unjustified; no one can fault Giuliani’s heroic actions when the Twin Towers were attacked by terrorists. Still, we tend to like movies where the men in authority are misguided fools and the maverick "everyman" saves the day.

In the original "Pelham," Walter Matthau gives a standout performance in what is a tense, gritty, but fairly routine urban thriller. His Lt. Garber is alternately cool and sardonic, funny without being comedic. The 1974 film is worth watching, if only for that final, enlightened freeze-frame on Matthau’s face before the credits roll. (You can watch the original "One Two Three" free on your computer at As his nemesis, Ryder, Robert Shaw is dignified and calm, an upper-crust criminal with a crisp British accent. He could have been the cop as easily as the criminal.

In the remake, Denzel Washington as Garber and John Travolta as Ryder both deliver masterful performances, and there is no question which one is the criminal. Ryder’s character is more fully developed and played to devilish perfection by Travolta, who remains on the edge of sanity throughout the film. He’s the consummate villain: smart, cool, merciless, and unafraid of death. 

Both characters have reasons to be angry at the system: Ryder appears to have a beef against Wall Street or government regulation or both; we are never quite sure what has prompted his assault on the train, but it is clear that he feels justified and vengeful. Garber (in this version an MTA employee, not a cop) seems to have just as compelling a reason for revenge; he has been demoted from management to desk clerk after allegations that he has taken a bribe. But unlike Ryder, Garber is willing to trust the system and have his day in court.

These two adversaries are emotionally connected throughout the film, the yin and yang of guilt, forgiveness and revenge. As if to emphasize this connection, both wear a single earring. Ryder’s is a small black cross while Garber’s is a white diamond, a subtle nod to the old days of film making when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black. In this film the guy with the black earring is white, and the guy wearing white is black, an equally subtle nod to the social issues that surrounded the original "Pelham" in 1974. In that film, Garber tries to cover his astonishment that the chief police inspector is black, the men in the (apparently underground) control room have to "watch [their] language just because they let a few broads in" as employees, Japanese businessmen are mocked mercilessly during a tour, the black passenger is a pimp, and Garber mistakenly calls a long-haired undercover policeman, "Miss."

These references to racial, gender and ethnic stereotypes were common in films of the 70s and 80s, but they seem as dated today as the afros and long sideburns sported by the characters.  This new film skips the moralizing to deliver a film that is exciting, tense, and entertaining, a rare remake that improves on the original.  Sure, you could wait a few months for the video to be released. But if, like me, you enjoy the total movie experience–the darkened theater, the silenced cell phones, the popcorn and raisinettes–this movie is worth the price of a pair of tickets.