Posted: 06/14/2009


The Taking of Pelham 123

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the Taking of Pelham 123 played off each other so well, that by the end of the movie, I sort of felt sorry for old Travolta, who played Ryder in the “New York City terrorist run-away subway” plot.

Washington plays Garber, a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) control center operator who had his own troubles at work, before Ryder came on the scene to totally mess up his day. He has recently been demoted for his part in an alleged bribe with a Japanese rail car manufacturer. So when the call comes into the station that a train has been commandeered by Travolta and his crew, Washington just happens to be the one to answer the call.

The relationship between Travolta and Washington at times seems close, because Travolta has a way of playing mind games and endearing Washington, as well as the audience, to him—finding a common ground upon which they both can relate. They both discuss religion and family, but in the midst of it all, Travolta is very clear in his ransom demands—$10 million brought to him on the train within less than an hour, or each minute’s delay will result in one subway passenger being gunned down.

As Travolta purges himself, you get the sense that he has a beef with the city of New York. And in the end, the movie reveals that he, in fact, does.
After initially speaking with Washington, who wears glasses and sports a noticeable pouch, Travolta forces him to come clean about the alleged bribe, or Travolta threatens to kill a passenger. In this exchange, Travolta reminds Washington that by giving him the front-line desk job, the city of New York is in a way humiliating him, and that he should not be pleased with his new position.
Travolta relishes the fact that, with Washington’s admission, he and Washington have a “bad-boy” bond, as Travolta continues to threaten to kill passengers on the subway train.
A special detective is brought in on the case, played by John Turturro, as is the mayor of New York, played by James Gandolfini. The mayor’s character seems to be a composite of mayors Guilliani and Bloomberg, as well as a spattering of derailed New York Gov. Mark Spitzer. References to extra-marital affairs and living large on a token salary are thrown Gandolfini’s way throughout the negotiations with Travolta.
Washington has as much expertise in the subway system as Travolta has in masterminding the crime, as Washington started working for MTA as a maintenance man. His knowledge of the rail system makes him the prime choice to be the one whom Travolta orders to deliver the ransom once it’s paid.
Things get a bit scary then, as it pains Washington to see Travolta and what’s left of his crew get away with the robbery. What develops after they do escape is sad, as Travolta reaches out one last time to pretend he and Washington both have bones to pick with city authority.
The Taking of Pelham 123 is a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name, which starred Walter Matthau as the subway dispatcher and Robert Shaw as the hijacker of the train.
In the original movie, $1 million was the ransom amount and, of course, the technology and “feel of the film” are quite different than it was 35 years ago. A twist also exists in the new movie that plays the progression of the hijacking against the day’s stock market returns.
I loved the movie’s energy, cinematography and the action scenes involving the New York Police Department, as well as the way director Tony Scott periodically suspends action during a particular scene to emphasize the minutes left on the clock. However, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with seeing terrorist type, hijacking movies filmed in New York City, after 9/11, even if this one does occur on the subway.
But in the end—while much of the movie revolves around the dialogue and temporary connection between Washington and Travolta—the pair gives the audience its money’s worth in a film filled with nail-biting suspense, conniving action and, of course, stunning bloodshed.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic living in Chicago.

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