Four heavily armed men board a New York subway train, pull their guns out and hijack the vehicle, taking all the passengers hostage. The leader, Ryder (John Travolta), contacts the transit control center and talks to dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), demanding $10 million dollars in ransom. Ryder starts the clock ticking and allows a mere hour to get the money and deliver it or he will start killing his captives in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”
After seeing Tony Scott’s re-imagining of the 1974 original, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” I had the opportunity to watch the earlier film again. Both films are exciting crime thrillers that move briskly along with the story of a NY subway car taken hostage, based on John Godey’s novel. The new rendition is scripted by Brian Helgeland and he updates the tale to fit the post-9/11 sensibilities where such an incident would immediately bring the “T” word (terrorism) to the public mind.
Ryder and his gang of hijackers quickly take control of the titular train and immediately make their demands for the 10 million. Garber is the first one to talk to the criminals and Ryder decides that the controller is the only one he will deal with. When the police hostage teams, led by Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro), enter the scene, they take over the negotiations and dismiss Garber, unceremoniously sending him home. This is not acceptable to Ryder, who demands that Walter be the only one he will talk to. Camonetti’s refusal to comply ends in the first death, the motorman driving the train. Garber is quickly brought back into the game.
Thus begins a fever-pitched frenzy that pulls the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini) into the fray. He authorizes payment of the ransom but the ever-present ticking clock is counting down to H-hour. The police rush the loot across the crowded Manhattan streets and seem to be in time to save the hostages from certain death. Fate takes a hand, though, and the car transporting the cash gets into a terrible accident. With the deadline only moments away and the dough nowhere near, Garber is ordered to lie to Ryder to buy time. The ploy does not work and another captive dies violently.
Things finally culminate with the ransom, delivered by Garber at Ryder’s insistence, placed into the hijackers’ hands. But, the payoff is not the end of things and the action, already frantic, ramps up to even higher levels. The result is a climax that leaves you with sweaty palms and on the edge of your seat.
John Travolta plays the cool as a cucumber bad guy, very similar to his role in the 2001 “Swordfish,” with gusto. His is a performance of nuanced menace. Denzel Washington has the straight man role as Walter Garber and he is an effective foil to Ryder’s over the top criminal mastermind. The large supporting cast is ably led by John Turturro as the experienced hostage negotiator, gaining a simpatico hold on his Lt. Camonetti. James Gandolfini, as the wealthy, end of term NYC mayor, is solid in his calculating presence. The rest of the players give three-dimension to even the smallest role.
If I had only one word to describe “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” that word would be - slick. Direction by Scott, adapted script by Brian Helgeland, photography by Tobias Schliesser, art direction (David Swayze), production design (Chris Seagers), editing (Chris Lebenzon) and the rest help to make this a film that stands on its own. It adheres to the Godey novel (as does the original) but keeps it current. By way of comparison, the 1974 film shows New York at its grittiest. The new version shows the city in a much better light. I give it a B+.
Laura did not see this film.
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