Taking of Pelham 123

Jun. 11, 2009
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Trains have long been the setting for crime stories and thrillers. They are ideal as confined spaces in motion, roomy enough for greater interplay between passengers than the coach class cabin of a jetliner. As claustrophobic enclosures making their transit through a dark underworld, subway trains are better still.

Oddly, subway movies are relatively scarce, even if renditions of The Taking of Pelham 123 are plentiful. The newest version of this hostage drama, staring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, is the third adaptation of John Godey’s novel. The best edition was the taut 1974 film, with Walter Mathau as a police negotiator. The new movie is often exciting but strains too hard for those “wow” moments.

Pelham ‘09, as we’ll label it for convenience, benefits from good acting and set design. Washington plays Garber, an everyman in an extraordinary situation, with humor and deliberation. He is a dispatcher in the transit authority control center, a starship Enterprise gallery of color-coded computer screens, when a call comes from the Pelham subway. A man calling himself Ryder (Travolta) and a small band of heavily armed thugs have seized the train. Anger easily breaking through his mask of professional calm, Ryder arbitrarily chooses Garber as his negotiator with New York City. Then, he demands $10 million in $100 notes, delivered in one hour. The late fee is even crueler than the penalties of credit card companies. Unless the money is delivered, one passenger will die each minute after the clock hits the hour.

The setup allows for the action to transpire in what feels like tense moments of real time as the mayor (James Gandolfini on the right side of the law) and the police hostage expert (a terse John Turturro) sort out the city’s response. Meanwhile, Ryder engages Garber in conversation over the radio. The gangster tells Garber that the train’s cab reminds him of a confessional, leading the dispatcher to ask if he’s Catholic. “A good Catholic knows that nobody is innocent,” Ryder replies, before needling Garber with media accusations that the transit employee had accepted bribes. Ryder’s impassioned hatred for the Big Apple can’t entirely disguise his background in finance. He speaks of his hostages as “commodities.” He has no cause but cash.

The philosophical dimension of Pelham ‘09 is intriguing but not well developed, in part because Garber’s character is thinly written. As usual in Hollywood, the villain gets the best lines. The wired-up transparency of contemporary society is addressed through one passenger’s open laptop, which allows local television to broadcast the hostage situation live from the subway car. The race-against-time action scenes lunge forward like a video game, which they resemble, visually. Pelham ‘09 is a good idea that could have been better if the story and characters had been more richly cultivated. Be sure to catch the original with Mathau next time it runs on TCM.


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