A new take on a hostage classic

John Travolta as Ryder, the leader of a band of bad guys that seizes a New York subway car and takes the passengers hostage.
John Travolta as Ryder, the leader of a band of bad guys that seizes a New York subway car and takes the passengers hostage.
Posted: June 12, 2009

'Maestro, what's going on?" someone asks Walter Garber - looking a lot like Denzel Washington as he casts a puzzled gaze at the giant computerized board in New York's Rail Center headquarters, its lights indicating a Lexington Avenue train stopped on the tracks.

What's going on? Try a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, the 1974 hostage drama in which a band of bad guys with funny mustaches take control of a subway car, terrorizing its passengers and giving the city a mere 60 minutes to deliver a ransom. Or else the good citizens on board start dying.

And Walter, a Transit Authority veteran working the controls, has the fate of this new batch of passengers in his hands.

Directed by Tony Scott with a whoosh here, a Google Earth shot there, lots of backspinning visuals to go with Jay-Z's hip-hop on the sound track, The Taking of Pelham 123 pits Washington's mild-mannered Walter against the hijacking mastermind played by John Travolta. With a tattoo on his neck and villainy in his eye, Travolta is Ryder (not his real name) - his backstory a mystery, but his intentions clear. That'll be $10 million delivered pronto, please, or he and his crew (Luis Guzmán, Victor Gojcaj) will begin picking off the moms and kids, college students and suits, Army vets and homeless ladies, who are quaking in the car.

For most of the movie, Washington and Travolta converse by phone. But a face-to-face for the two A-listers seems inevitable. And it is.

The original Pelham, released when New York was a symbol of insolvency, incompetence, urban crime, and grime, doesn't hold up: The racism and sexism displayed by Walter Matthau (the hero!) and his cohorts spreads through the narrative like an infectious disease. Robert Shaw is the stony ringleader, and the suspense mounts accordingly, but the film feels flimsy and terribly dated now.

Scott, with his ADD-directing style and a screenplay (by L.A. Confidential's Brian Helgeland) that layers on a few twists, has delivered a film that at least feels of the moment. The character sketches are more sophisticated (but still sketches), the machinations of New York's mayoral office (James Gandolfini is His Honor) less cartoonishly cynical and inept. But I'll wager that in another 35 years, Scott's version will seem just as awkward and antiquated. The style will be outdated, and there's not much substance going on underneath.

Washington offers another of his rock-steady performances, playing a career civil servant with a couple of secrets of his own, but confident, diligent, ready to go the distance for the city he loves.

Travolta's snake-eyed Ryder seethes with menace. He's smart, sinister, not to be provoked. But as Ryder's motives begin to reveal themselves, The Taking of Pelham 123 loses its aura of post-9/11 dread, replaced by a muddled commentary on Wall Street greed in these days of raging financial crises.

Folks familiar with New York geography are going to question the necessity of Walter's third-act helicopter ride (in the company of NYPD hostage negotiator John Turturro), but cinematically it gives Scott the excuse for an appreciative flyover of the skyscrapers and bridges. If only the folks down there knew what a terrible mess has been going on in the tunnels below.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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