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The Taking of Pelham 123

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The Taking of Pelham 123
Released on Friday, Jul 31 2009

Director: Tony Scott
Screenwriters: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli, Luis Guzmán
Running time: 106 mins
Certificate: 15

Joe Public will pay little mind to the gap of 35 years between the first adaptation of John Godey's subway heist novel The Taking of Pelham 123 and this remake by Tony Scott. They'll be too distracted by the whiz bang style of Scott's direction and the explosive pairing of Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Certainly the stars are fun to watch, yet the film does miss one key character: New York. The original is as much a portrait of NYC in the mid-'70s and all the more entertaining because of it. Scott's train is an efficient thrill ride, but it could just as easily be the Piccadilly 123.

As it happens the train is so-named because it leaves Pelham Bay in the Bronx at 1:23pm. On this day it's boarded by a gang of hijackers led by Ryder, who's played by Travolta with that familiar gleaming eye of nearly subdued lunacy. In keeping with the high-octane pitch, a spray of machinegun fire spells trouble for the 18 passengers who instantly drop to their knees. That's a far cry from the same incident played out in 1974 when the commuters are so desensitised by the chaos of big city life they fail to take the verbal threat seriously. New Yorkers back then were a special breed, smiling defiantly through their cynicism, whereas in 2009, they're just bodies waiting to fall.

In the driver's cabin Ryder contacts the subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) and explains the situation: If he doesn't receive $10m within 60 minutes, he starts killing hostages. It's already a bad day for Garber who's forced to put up with a bullying boss (Michael Rispoli) and Washington exudes that odour of defeat from every pore, even carrying a few extra pounds to highlight the burden. It soon becomes apparent that he's just been demoted from an executive position and faces corruption charges. Writer Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) uses this bit of dirt to create a twisted kinship between Garber and Ryder, a device that works well not only to build the chemistry but to paint for us a more shaded, more human hero.

Initially, there isn't much Garber can do to save the hostages except talk it out with Ryder from his comfy swivel chair in transit control. Life imitates art as Washington's measured performance helps to calm down Travolta who, at the start, risks going over the top with cartoon villainy. But once they settle into an easier rapport, then it's Scott who appears to get antsy and feels the need to shake things up. Literally. He rocks, rolls and dollies the camera for simple exchanges of dialogue which only has the effect of disturbing the natural tempo of a scene. He also cuts away to more obvious action like the gung-ho SWAT team taking aim in the tunnel and every now and then a clock appears on screen, 24-style, for the count down to carnage.

All this effort to amp up the action can be dizzying, especially towards the end when Garber turns into Bruce Willis; leaving his swivel chair to save those passengers who are still alive (albeit dead in spirit). The real pulse of the film is what happens on the telephone lines and in the push-and-pull between the high-level players. That includes James Gandolfini as the image-conscious mayor, fumbling over the business of paying the ransom, and a stoic John Turturro as the hostage negotiator displaced by Garber. With each moment of decisive action, Garber's standing amongst his colleagues is also a key point of intrigue and, of course, the dynamic between Garber and Ryder builds a head of steam as events reach their noisy climax. Scott does like his bells and whistles, substituting those for real atmosphere and sense of place. Fortunately that's not enough to completely wreck a serviceable thriller.


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