REVIEW: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

pelham2009_posterStop me if you’ve heard this one before: four men board a New York subway train before revealing automatic weapons and taking the passengers hostage. Their leader (John Travolta) demands a ten million dollar ransom, to be delivered within one hour. At the other end of the radio line, a transit authority employee (Denzel Washington) fights against time, city hall, and even his own colleagues to keep the passengers alive.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon in Hollywood; in fact, the American film industry has been re-working older films for more than a century (The Squaw Man, a 1918 remake of the 1914 film of the same name). The most common reason for remaking a film is, of course, brand: by adapting an already-known work half the job of educating an audience over what the new film is about is done. There are, of course, other reasons. Some times an original film might fail to properly capitalise on a smart concept or format, so a remake can take a second shot at making that concept work. Other times it may simply be that a concept worked brilliantly the first time, and a fresh production team want to renew it for a contemporary audience.

That latter reasoning seems to be behind the late Tony Scott’s 2009 thriller The Taking of Pelham 123. The original film, directed by Joseph Sargent in 1974, is critically acclaimed with a 100% ‘fresh’ score on the critic website Rotten Tomatoes and yet its popular profile had by-and-large evaporated by the 21st century (a 1998 TV remake starring Edward James Olmos notwithstanding). The remake updates the cultural context of the original, and shoots it through the lens of Scott’s frantic, energised film-making style. The editing is fast, the colours are heavily saturated, and the camera threads and darts its way through the action like a maniac.

The original Pelham drew considerably upon social issues of the time, such as the rapid explosion in hijackings from 1968 to 1972 and the rise of crime and disorder in New York City. The 2009 edition instead draws its own inspiration from the global financial crisis that sparked off in New York in 2008, and develops a more complex and inventive background for both Travolta’s anonymous hostage taker and Washington’s harried transit worker – accused of taking bribes from an overseas contractor.

While the structure of the new film remains near-identical, it reworks its characters in fresh ways. Robert Shaw’s tightly-wound and soft-spoken Mr Blue has been replaced with John Travolta’s flamboyant and theatrical “Ryder”, the latest in a string of enthused villainous turns by the actor. It is a stark contrast, but an equally valid approach, and it fits well with Scott’s energetic directing style. A similar shift occurs at the other end of the transit radio, with Walter Matthau’s honest everyperson version of Garber replaced with Denzel Washington’s more ambivalent version – trapped under a cloud of accusations and trying to demonstrate his integrity in a near-impossible situation.

In its faster, more aggressive form, the 2009 Pelham bolts from the gate and keeps the audience transfixed through a variety of plot shifts and action sequences. Tony Scott was a transformative figure for American popular cinema, and this film was one of his most effective: smart plotting, strong performances, and an enormous amount of style. It does not replace Sargent’s original, but there is little doubt that it honours it. If you want proof that remakes can and sometimes are a great thing, The Taking of Pelham 123 definitely provides it.

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