The Taking of Pelham 123

Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, and James Gandolfini. Directed by Tony Scott. 106 mins.
Rated MA 15+ (strong violence and coarse language).
35 years ago there was a fine, taut, action thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (it set out on its route at 1.23 pm).  This version, by writer Brian Heligoland (LA Confidential, The Knight's Tale), is based on the original novel, but the basic plot is much the same as the earlier film.  However, this is very much an updated version, a New York with state of the art technology for the running of the subway system as well as internet links for the police as well as the criminals for instant information (on the part of the passengers as well).  The background for the crime is financial, Wall St, with allusions to the contemporary credit crunch and crisis.

You can tell it is an up to the minute thriller - as well, for those who follow directors - because it is a Tony Scott film with swirl and moving colour pallettes before the credits are over.

On the other hand, it is also an old-fashioned thriller, a battle of wills and wits (the screenplay a mixture of smart writing and  crass aggressivity) between the train controller and the train hijacker.  Authorities are concerned that this is another terrorist attack.  The film keeps on the move, the tension betwween the two protagonists, the fears of the hostages on the train and some callous deaths, the time limit for delivering $10,000,000 within an hour, the intervention of a hostage negotiating expert and the wise/unwise interventions of the mayor.

Denzel Washington seems to have put on weight, perhaps to show that he is an ordinary New York Joe – although his performance looks and sounds like a performance by Forest Whitaker as well.  Washington is always an impressive screen presence and brings great credibility to all his roles.  His controller seems an upright character but a back story emerges quite dramatically which shows some moral ambiguity and a test of his personal integrity.  (Walter Matthau played the controller in the original.)

John Travolta has opted to be the villain, an unredeemed, vengeful, greedy and violent villain who likes to philosophise about life, money, death and who is comfortable (though with mood swings) keeping in contact with the controller.  Travolta lives his role.  (Robert Shaw played the hijacker in the original.)

The supporting cast is good, especially John Turturro also convincing as the hostage negotiator who makes some mistakes but is still the expert.  James Gandolfini has a cameo as an opportunist mayor.

Tension is in the editing of the race for cars and motorbikes to get the money to the subway within the limited time.  As the vehicles race through the Manhattan streets there are several collisions as trucks and taxis run red lights and cause crashes and roadblocks – a bit more realistic than the usual movie rush without incident through urban traffic.

The Taking of Pelham 123 does what it sets out to do: create a tense thriller that takes place over one afternoon in New York City and shows how people respond to unexpected crises.

Out August 27 2009

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting. 

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