This new version of The Taking Of Pelham 123 falls under the category of unnecessary remakes, reimaginings, reboots, or retellings. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie. In fact, it’s a pretty good movie. I guess my big problem is that this latest trend to redo so many things that have come before suggests a lack of originality in today’s artists. I don’t believe there is a lack of creativity in this generation. I do, however, think there is a laziness that pervades almost every aspect of our society, and this endless chain of copies is a symptom of that disease. Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not one of these critics who believes that films and television shows can’t or should not occasionally be redone. There’s a lot to be said for reintroducing current generations to the ideas of the past in new and exciting ways. I just think it shouldn’t be the most common form of expression in Hollywood, but lately it is just that. Lecture over.
The story first appeared as a novel by John Godey. It was made into a film many of us consider a classic in 1974. The leads in that effort were the unlikely pair of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. In this film they are replaced by Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Both are exceptional actors and deserve credit for delivering solid performances here. In both films the overall plot was the same.
A terrorist (Shaw/Travolta) has taken control of a New York subway train. He has taken hostages and communicates to a guy named Garber (Matthau/Washington) that he wants money or he will kill the hostages. In both films the interplay between these characters is what drives the film. Both depend on solid chemistry developing between them in their conversations. In 1974 the two characters never met in person, and Garber was a cop. In 2009 Garber is a transportation executive who has been demoted while a bribery charge against him is being investigated. In both films the true motive of the operation was not actually the ransom money itself.
Even though these guys really tried to distance themselves from the original, they end up with the same strengths. As much as Tony Scott is trying to misdirect you from what’s important, these actors don’t let that happen. Travolta has become a pretty good bad guy in recent years. He has that determined, controlled madman down to a science. Washington, on the other hand does the everyman about as well as anyone in the business today. You can feel him becoming overwhelmed by these circumstances. He just wants to get back to his family and have a normal day. Somehow he’s bonded with this crazy person. He’s not a hero but he finds a way to be heroic, as flawed as he is. You shouldn’t be surprised. You’ve seen Washington do it too many times before. Another smart bit of casting has James Gandolfini as the mayor of New York. It’s a small role, but Tony Soprano, I mean James Gandolfini, does a lot with it.
There is no question that in this film, like its source material, everything hinges on these two lead characters. The new film adds an FBI negotiator played by John Turturro, and while Turturro is a fine actor playing a good character, I think 1974 had it right. He’s not needed and only takes precious screen time away from the leads. Of course, things have changed a lot since 1974. What was a simple operation would look crude today. The MTA Operation Center looks like Mission Control at NASA. Of course, we also can’t discard what I’d like to call the Tony Scott effect. With Scott, you know there has to be some ramped up action, and that’s exactly what you get here. What was once a psychological game of cat and mouse has become a straightforward action film. Sure, it’s fun. Yes, it’s exhilarating. Of course, it’s visually stunning. I love it. But, that’s not what Pelham was originally about.
Why is this such a problem? This new fancy version of Pelham cost over $100 million to make. All of that visual razzmatazz costs money. It made only a little over half that at the box office. This one came in and out of theaters faster than a runaway train. The original made over 3 times its budget at the box office. By the way, there was also a 1998 television remake done with Edward James Olmos as Garber, renamed Piscotti ,and Vincent D’Onofrio as the bad guy.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average bit rate of about 29 mbps. The film looks very good. Colors are quite natural. Lighting is very odd in this film, but this transfer handles it all quite nicely by delivering solid contrast. Black levels are exceptional. Colors are a little oversaturated at times, but that’s really Tony Scott trying to look artistic. Detail level is very strong. I think the most impressive part of this picture is the wide shots of the MTA status board. It’s rich in colors and finer elements of detail. I think that adds tremendously to the high tech feel these guys were going for to distance their film from the others. It’s a solid image presentation.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track does a lot more here than you might expect. There is an aggressive use of surrounds at times that does a wonderful job of immersing you into the action. It’s a bit loud at times in the score, and I found this score to be quite percussive and distracting. Dialog is fine, and you can hear everything that’s going on here.
The menus are way too loud in relation to the content. I had to keep turning my master volume up and down.
No Time To Lose – The Making Of Pelham 123: (30:25) Cast and crew talk mostly about the challenges of working inside New York’s subway system to make this as real as they could. They do talk about the original film. It’s a typical behind the scenes feature with plenty of backstage footage.
The Third Rail – The New York Underground: (16:15) This one begins like it’s going to be a documentary on the New York subway system but eventually becomes another making of feature dealing with their location shoots.
From Top Down – Stylizing Character With Danny Moumjiam, The Lab Saloon: (5:17) A long name for a feature on the set barber. If you can watch nearly bald Tony Scott say how he likes to make a statement with how his hair is cut, with a straight face, you’re a better person than I.
CineChat: This is a feature that allows you to chat with your friends over the internet while you watch the film.
Movie IQ: If connected to the net you can look up facts about the film and actors.
I was disappointed to hear someone say in the features that the original film doesn’t work any more. Sorry, bud. It’s a classic. This one will be forgotten within a year. It’s a cool action film, but it will never stand out. We won’t be talking this film 30 years from now the way these guys are still talking about the original. I would have expected more respect from such a seasoned crew. Action fans will enjoy this one. If you haven’t seen the original … well … that’s still the lead dog in my book. “Yeah… and you know that whole saying that if you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes?”