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“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”-(Chris)
Chris Pandolfi
Studio: Sony Pictures
Release Date:
Special Features:

2 commentaries / 4 featurettes


Yes, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” works as an action film. But what interested me more was the dynamic between subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) and a criminal mastermind who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta). They share such fascinating scenes that I’m disappointed there weren’t more of them. ***

It’s a classic psychological scenario: Ryder, who hijacks a New York City subway train and holds passengers hostage, begins communicating with Garber over the intercom and comes to identify with him. Would he consider Garber a friend? Possibly, although I think a more accurate way of putting it is that he considers Garber as an equal, someone who knows just how terrible the city of New York can be. To elaborate would give too much away, but I will say that Garber has his own problems to deal with. ***

Tony Scott’s remake of the 1974 film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw (itself based on the novel by John Godey) isn’t at pains to transcend its genre, and it definitely steers clear of the subtleties that make psychological thrillers appealing. Still, it achieves everything it wanted to achieve. ***

Much of its success, of course, is the result of the performances by Washington and Travolta; despite the fact that they aren’t physically seen together for most of the film, they still share natural onscreen chemistry, the back and forth conversations over the intercom flowing with seemingly no effort. Travolta in particular is especially good, effectively conveying his character’s irrational state of mind. Ryder is a psychopath, but he’s not without some depth – one can tell that his rage has been building for quite some time, quite possibly for very good reasons. ***

Whereas the original film was focused on satirically portraying the people of New York reacting to an extraordinary situation, this new film focuses more on the situation itself, and it plays up the psychological drama convincingly. What Ryder and Garber share is much more personal, which is to say that it’s not merely about trying to stop the bad guy. It’s about trying to understand the bad guy, getting to the heart of why he’s doing what he’s doing. ***

There are some interesting things to consider, most notably the fact that he continuously monitors the state of the stock market on a laptop as he sits in the driver’s compartment. This most certainly has something to do with his demands: Garber must contact the Mayor of New York and have $10 million delivered in exactly one hour. Should the delivery be late, Ryder will execute a hostage for every additional minute. ***

There are other nicely developed characters. For one, there’s Camonetti (John Turturro), a professional hostage negotiator who guides Garber as he attempt to placate Ryder. Camonetti is level-headed and calm, a man who has clearly been through tough situations before. He’s well aware of the urgency, but he never loses himself to panic, and he’s capable of thinking things through, even when Ryder showers him with a litany of ethnic slurs. At the same time, he’s well aware that time is running out for the hostages, as is the NYPD, who have the unfortunate responsibility of collecting Ryder’s money and getting it to the subway. ***

There’s also Garber’s wife, Therese (Aunjanue Ellis). While not given very much screen time, her brief phone conversations with her husband suggest fascinating things about their relationship. Why, for instance, would she ask him to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home from delivering the money to Ryder? Better yet, why would Garber immediately start talking about only getting a quart? Do they genuinely believe that everything will be all right, or is it just their way to distract themselves so as not to panic? I would imagine it’s a little bit of both. ***

And then there’s the Mayor of New York (James Gandolfini). I was pleasantly surprised by him. He’s introduced as yet another political stereotype – an unpopular man with no connection to the people in the middle of a scandal. But then comes his final scene with Garber, and while I won’t reveal what he says, I will say that it makes him seem much more convincing as a real person. This didn’t quite apply to the original version of “Pelham,” which depicted the Mayor, played by Lee Wallace, as an opportunistic phony. Maybe it helped that Gandolfini’s take on this character didn’t involve him being sick with the flu. ***

All in all, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is adequate entertainment, which is to say that it’s everything it wants to be and no more. It delivers as a tense action picture, but it achieves more with the psychological components, helped immensely by the onscreen chemistry between Washington and Travolta. ***

Special Features:

This DVD includes two audio commentary tracks, one with director Tony Scott, the other with writer Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black. Also included are four featurettes: “No Time to Lose: The Making of ‘Pelham 1 2 3,’” “The Third Rail: New York Underground,” “Marketing ‘Pelham,’” and “From the Top Down: Stylizing Character.” The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 widescreen format and features Dolby 5.1 Digital sound. ***

Final Words:

In spite of the less-than-original plot, they were able to convince me that they were two men on opposite sides of the law in a desperate situation. Travolta is especially effective, not a clone of the cold and calculating Mr. Blue from the original “Pelham” but rather an enhancement – an intense man with a grudge against the city of New York. You believe that he’s capable of anything, including murder. Believing in a character is always the hallmark of a decent movie.


Copyright @ Teakwood Productions 2000
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