The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) Review

The Taking of Pelham 123 - Movie Review (2009)

Click here to read my original The Taking of Pelham 123 review from 2009.


Three years went by between Tony Scott’s previous film, Deja Vu, and this. Before that and culminating with Deja Vu, he directed films in three consecutive years. Was he burnt out? Or creatively stuck? I’m merely speculating, but choosing to remake this well-known 70s thriller is a choice that otherwise makes little sense for a director as uniquely visionary as Scott. Sure, he brings a certain flair to the proceedings, as always, but the soul of the original is only superficially changed and not in ways that improve upon it. Certain characters act differently and have different backstories. The film’s conclusion is injected with some adrenaline, but none of it feels truly inspired.

Mid-to-late 2000s Scott muse Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a train dispatcher for the New York MTA. It’s not what he was supposed to be doing on the day a man named Ryder (John Travolta) took over the Pelham 123 train by force, but he answered the call because he was demoted from his supervisor role while he was investigated for allegedly accepting a bribe on the job. Ryder and his partners in crime demand $10 million from the city within the hour in exchange for the train and its hostage passengers, but Ryder almost immediately becomes interested in something else. He identifies Garber as another person who has been beaten down by “the man,” and deep down he thinks Garber will identify favorably with what Ryder is doing here. So he insists on Garber being the one to deliver the money to find out if he’ll put his neck on the line for the city that he thinks turned its back on them both.

The relationship between Garber and Ryder is the biggest departure between the original Pelham and Scott’s remake. It’s an interesting wrinkle, but I’m not sure it adds up to all that much. Denzel Washington is pitch perfect in this role, but these just aren’t people that I need to see psychologically penetrate each other. Ultimately, the film seems to want to build toward this moment of almost divine heroism from a normal guy with little to gain. Scott has done more interesting versions of that before. His best films instead deal with people defined by their contradicting good and bad qualities. And the original Pelham succeeded in spite of its Garber’s flaws and disinterest in being a hero. It just seems like a misguided choice, and it really defines the entire film.

It doesn’t help that Travolta is pretty awful as Ryder. He’s pretty whiny and very hot-headed, and in that sense, he’s the polar opposite of Robert Shaw’s chillingly polished and determined Blue from the original. (Blue, you would think, would dispatch of Ryder fairly quickly if they were on the same job.) I don’t know what Travolta or Scott was going for with this characterization, but if the entire thing hinges on Garber finding the courage and the will to take him on, it’ll never work unless he’s someone we truly fear.

The action scenes are mostly rote – extra loud and extra fast versions of what we saw in 1974. I do think the mayor subplot is vastly improved over the original film. James Gandolfini is a great choice, and it’s nice to see that character with some agency. Ultimately, though, this is just a film from a guy who can do better and feels like he’s on autopilot. Weirdly enough, he finds some real inspiration for his next (and last) film, which also centers around a train, so maybe Pelham was a necessary stepping stone to bring us Unstoppable, but regardless, I don’t think it’s worth watching. I didn’t like it in 2009, and I still am not a fan.

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