Cast: Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), Ryder (John Travolta), Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman), Bashkin (Victor Cojcaj), Emri (Robert Vataj), Gamonetti (John Turturro), John Johnson (Michael Rispoli), Delgado (Ramon Rodriguez), Mayor (James Gandolfini), Deputy Mayor LaSalle (John Benjamin Hickey)
Director: Tony Scott
Theatrical release: 06/12/2009 DVD Date: 11/03/2009
Rating: R for for intense sequences of strong violence, and pervasive strong language. Running Time: 106 minutes
Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a remake of the original film adaptation from 1974 that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in the Denzel Washington and John Travolta roles, respectively. I haven't seen the original in, maybe, 30 years but my recollection is that I greatly enjoyed it.
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a New York city transit system subway dispatcher, a man who had worked his way up through the ranks to senior management only to be demoted while under investigation for accepting a bribe from a train manufacturer. (The character's name in the original is Zachary, but in a nod to Matthau, he was renamed Walter in this film.) He's on the desk when the train designated Pelham 1-2-3 unexpectedly stops in the middle of a tunnel. A group of four men have taken a single car of the train with passengers aboard hostage -- releasing the other cars -- and is demanding $10 million be paid within one hour. For every minute past the hour deadline one hostage will be killed. The leader of the group, who identifies himself as Ryder (John Travolta), forms a bond with Garber over the radio and when it comes time to hand over the money, Ryder insists Garber be the one to deliver it.
The storyline in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 seems tailor-made for a thriller film, but it's more of a psychological thriller than, say, an action thriller. And that's really how the movie should have been made. The director, however, makes some serious missteps in adding a number of totally needless and pointless action sequences, set on the streets of Manhattan not even remotely near where the story takes place, into the movie. Fortunately, they consume very little time and don't detract significantly from interplay between Garber and Ryder, which is at the heart of the film and generates most of the suspense. What is distracting, though, is the constant movement of the camera. Again, it's unnecessary and serves no purpose.
John Travolta seems ideally cast as Ryder, and plays the character brilliantly. Denzel Washington seems to be a less ideal choice for the role of Garber. Washington is better with characters that have a bit of an edge to them; here, he's rather unassuming and doesn't ever appear to be fazed at all by what's happening or the fact that the fate of over a dozen lives are effectively in his hands. There's something about that that doesn't feel right. Don't get me wrong, his performance is just fine; it's just that he seems slightly miscast in the part.
For the most part, the adapted storyline is plausible though there are a handful of plot points that are, if not outright impossible, then highly improbable, even for a work of fiction. Most come late in the movie and have to do with Ryder's motivation for and execution of his financial plan.
Overall, the film has a crisp look to it, and the pacing is just about right, with a minimum of tangential scenes (the special effects action sequences notwithstanding). I enjoyed watching The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and recommend it ... and though my recall of the 1974 film is quite hazy, my sense is this updated version doesn't quite measure up to the intensity of the original. I guess I'll have to re-watch it soon to refresh my memory!