Stand Clear of the Cinema Doors

The Taking of Pelham 123, reviewed.

The Taking of Pelham 123

Attention moviegoers: The people at Columbia Pictures would like to clear something up. Apparently there’s a rumor going around that Tony Scott’s new film, The Taking of Pelham 123, is a remake of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. This is false. Scott’s film is an adaptation of John Godey’s 1973 pulp novel, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (on which Sargent’s movie was also based). This is plainly stated in the film’s opening credits. Are we clear?

It’s easy to imagine why Pelham’s producers wouldn’t want Scott’s professional but dull picture to be compared with the 1974 classic. The original Pelham is an economical, well-acted thriller about a subway hijacking. And it’s also a wickedly funny portrait of 1970s New York as the city teetered on the edge of solvency and governability. In Sargent’s film, when the city’s ineffectual mayor is informed that four heavily armed men are holding 19 New Yorkers hostage for a $1 million ransom, his honor complains of flu symptoms and goes back to bed. The MTA’s cranky dispatcher is no more sympathetic. “What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents, to live forever?”

It thus falls to one Lt. Garber (a wonderfully put-upon Walter Matthau) of the transit police to sort out how to rescue the hostages—a cross section of New Yorkers that includes a hippie, a suit, two bratty kids, a white hooker, a black pimp, a Latina who doesn’t speak English, a crotchety old man who finds the hijackers’ ransom demand insultingly low, and a drunk who sleeps through the entire ordeal. Joseph Sargent had clearly spent some quality time on the New York City subway.

Tony Scott, by contrast, admitted to the Times that prior to working on Pelham, he’d actually never been on the subway before. “Well, when I say never, I mean maybe once or twice quite drunk at night, when I couldn’t find a taxi.” For a movie ostensibly set in the city’s bowels, he frequently contrives to take his camera on helicopter rides.

Scott’s focus is on his blue-chip stars, humble MTA dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, bespectacled) and mercurial hijacking mastermind “Ryder” (John Travolta, mustachioed). Washington, who chunked up a bit for the role of civil servant, does his work in a high-tech command center that looks more like NASA than MTA. But the brazen crime that unfolds before him hasn’t changed much since 1974. Four heavily armed men hijack a southbound 6 train—the titular Pelham 123, so called because it originated at the Pelham Bay Park Station at 1:23 p.m.—and hold 19 hostages for ransom. Only this time they’re asking for $10 million. And they have a Wi-Fi connection.

The WiFi—conjured, somehow, by Ryder henchman Phil Ramos (a criminally squandered Luis Guzmán)—is important because Ryder isn’t actually interested in the $10 million ransom. That’s just a diversion, something to keep Garber, an NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro), and the mayor (James Gandolfini, always excellent) busy. The big score will come when the stock market tanks—and precious-metal prices spike—on news of a possible terrorist attack on the New York City subway. Ryder’s got all his money in gold, you see. This is established by several shots of him laughing maniacally as he refreshes on his laptop.

Ryder, we learn, is a former Wall Street high roller, the kind of guy who would weekend in Iceland with an “ass model” (like a hand model, he proudly explains to Garber, but for asses). When we meet him, however, he’s fresh from a nine-year stint in prison for embezzling money from a city pension fund, which perhaps explains why his colorful taunts—”Lick my bunghole, motherfucker!”—are so charmingly antiquated. It’s presumably also the reason Ryder went from being a cutthroat Wall Street trader to being an inked-up thug who blithely guns down innocent civilians on the Lexington Avenue local.

Washington’s Garber happens to be watching over the Lexington line when Ryder radios in his demands, and he becomes the city’s point man in trying to keep Ryder from killing hostages and later, improbably, in trying to bring him to justice. Does Denzel pull it off? I shouldn’t say—I wouldn’t want to spoil it for folks who haven’t yet finished the novel.

Here’s my question: Why did Tony Scott make this movie? He isn’t a straphanger. He isn’t paying Tarantino-like homage to a film he grew up on. And any implication in Scott’s film that New York in 2009 might be in danger of slipping into a 1970s-style malaise is purely incidental. So why did he bother?

The issue only becomes more perplexing when you consider the next project he’s attached to direct. A new adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather? No, but only slightly less odd. On deck is a remake of The Warriors, the cult classic about gangs in 1970s New York set, for long stretches, in the city’s subway system. (Like Scott’s Pelham, it was shot largely in Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn station.) Any train riding in Scott’s 2010 version, however, will be strictly light rail. Tired, perhaps, of having to wait for the F train while quite drunk, he’s setting the remake in L.A.

Slate V: The critics on The Taking of Pelham 123 and other new movies