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June 17, 2009 > Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123

Fast-paced and exciting but closes lamely

By Joe Samagond

The "Taking of Pelham 123" (2009) is an adventurous remake of the 1974 original based on Morton Freedgood's novel (under his pen name, John Godey). As with most book-turned-movies, much of the plot changes as it makes its way to this current day movie.

This "Pelham," while certainly no classic, is a lot of fun if you are in the right mood. Director Tony Scott has energetically updated the original, taking into account of how much the character of New York has changed since that almost mythic decade of glory and decline. The story deals with the brazen and incredulous hijacking of a local train on the Lexington Avenue line, but the subway system itself serves as an index of how the city and action-movie technology have evolved over the years. Tucked inside this efficiently engineered adrenaline-powered story is a sharp little parable about the city that talks to its character.

In a very charismatic, sometimes subdued and carefully modulated performance, Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a former NY transportation executive who has been busted down to role of dispatcher pending a bribery investigation. John Travolta plays Ryder, a psychopath who, with the aid of his henchmen, hijacks a subway car and parks it deep in the bowels of the city's tunnel system. Travolta is the best he's been since "Face/Off" as the mustachioed, psychotic villain.

Reaching Garber on the radio, Ryder announces he wants $10 million in an hour - or he will begin killing the 17 frightened hostages one at a time, for every minute of delay. Ryder quickly begins playing head games with Garber and, eventually vice versa, as Garber tries to stall for time. There is some nice supporting work by John Turturro as a police hostage negotiator and especially James Gandolfini as the wisecracking, philandering mayor, who at one point actually gets on the radio with Ryder against police advice. It's still an incredible premise for a movie, because you have to wonder how they are going to get away with it, surrounded as they are by the full power of the NYPD. Director Scott embellishes it with 21st-century technology, including a pulsating race to bring the money in from the Fed in Brooklyn to the hijacked subway train in time for the deadline.

There aren't many movies that take place in NYC subways these days, and the lavishly produced movie is the most entertaining we've had in a long while in that genre. The makers seem incapable of composing a simple shot; everything is jazzed up with freeze frames, adjusted shutter speeds, and swirling camera movements. But that's okay; it works in this context because it keeps the viewer on edge. While the movie starts out solidly and carries smoothly well past the midway point, it seems to fall apart in the last half hour. I'd love to explain why, but I can't do it without giving away a key part of the movie! Nonetheless, that letdown did not spoil the overall experience for me. It is still an enjoyable movie.

Rated: R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has intense violence and frequent use of obscenities.
Runtime: 106 minutes

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