The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)


In the press notes for Tony Scott’s garish remake of the 1974 heist classic The Taking of Pelham 123 – itself adapted from the novel by John Godey – screenwriter Brian Helgeland states that his version gets under the skin of its central characters far more than either the original film or novel. To suggest that your adaptation may be better that its source is a bold statement indeed, and it’s immediately clear that Helgeland is way overstating the achievement of the film in character development. For while Denzel Washington’s performance showcases his usual, dependable breadth of human emotion, Travolta’s characterisation is about as deep and meaningful as a box of bricks.

For Travolta’s train ‘napper Ryder is more pantomime villain than criminal mastermind, spitting out expletives and crass one-liners – including the memorable ‘The Mayor can lick my bunghole’ – that absolutely undermine any of his menace. As Ryder and his cohorts kidnap a New York subway car full of passengers and demand a ransom – a plot that seems to be personally pointed at the city’s outgoing Mayor (James Ganolfini) – he comes up against Walter Garber (Washington), a train dispatcher who, by a convoluted twist of fate, just happened to be at the other end of the radio. For Garber used to be a big shot at the Metropolitan Transport Authority, but accusations of bribe-taking have bumped him back down the career ladder. So, as both men nurse their own personal demons, a cat and mouse game ensues over the airwaves as each tries to exploit the others emotional loopholes to bring the situation to their preferred end.

And, if Scott had focused on this intense mental struggle between two damaged men, the film could have been a very different beast, even a fairly decent remake. Washington’s sound and hugely watchable performance would probably been enough to carry Travolta, to provide enough of a distraction from Ryder’s laughable aggression to have pushed the narrative forward. But even Washington, mighty as he is, can’t shoulder the burden of Scott’s haphazard direction, punctuated with edits so fast that, at times, it’s like watching the film through an old-fashioned zoetrope.

It’s clear that Scott’s intention is to convey the life-or-death tension of the heist, and the taut energy of a New York City much changed since 9/11, by not allowing his camera to sit still for a second. But it’s far too distracting a tactic, and there are several moments – including a dizzying spin round Gandolfini’s mayor while in simple conversation and angled shots of the skyline from a helicopter – that are more nauseating (literally) than exciting.

So, Helgeland may have intended to write this version of Pelham as a focused psychological thriller, but his vision has been lost in translation thanks largely to Scott’s heavy handed direction and Travolta’s hissing baddie. Fans of Washington may find some merit; the rest should watch Joseph Sargent’s original instead.

2 stars

See below for Featurettes with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington, plus a clip from the film or
Watch The Taking of Pelham 123 Trailer

Stars Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman
Director Tony Scott
Screenplay Brian Helgeland, from the novel by John Godey
Certificate 15
Distributor Sony Pictures
Running Time 1hr 46mins
Opens July 30