A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, R, 106 mins.


Walter Garber: Denzel Washington / Ryder: John Travolta / Camonetti: John Turturro / Phil Ramos: Luis Guzman / John Johnson: Michael Rispoli / Mayor: James Gandolfini

Directed by Tony Scott / Written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey

I have not seen Joseph Sargent’s 1974 version of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (in turn based on the novel by John Godey), nor have I seen the very little regarded 1998 TV movie version of the same name.  This places me in a bit of a quandary as a film critic: Usually I review remakes having seen their antecedents and base my opinions on the new version with a simple criteria (do they both maintain the flavour and overall tone of the original and do they successfully modernize the story, taking the narrative in slightly new directions without compromising the original work for contemporary consumption).  One would argue that not having seen the original PELHAM 123 places me in an advantageous position, which is true to a degree, so I guess the best manner to dissect the film is to look at it squarely on its own merits. 

I have enough cursory knowledge of the original: You may recall that the Sarget incarnation is regarded by many as a well-oiled B-thriller starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw as the players in an extended subway hostage drama.  The film has also been respected as one of its time, typifying the mood and disillusionment in Vietnam-era, post-Watergate America.  This new update of PEHLAM appropriates most of the basic elements of the original, albeit with some fairly obvious tweaks: the highjacker is now a former Wall Street business man turned ex-con using the stock market to his advantage (now that’s a topical and relevant antagonist!), the ransom has gone from $1 million to $10 million (not a huge jump, considering inflation) and the negotiator is now a transit executive and not a cop.  We still have a subway car filled with hostages and a standoff. 

This PELHAM-redux benefits from some seriously beefed up cast and crew (not to take anything away from Shaw and Matthau):  We have Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Jon Turturro, and James Galdolfini starring, Brian Helgeland (who penned L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, MYSTIC RIVER, and PAYBACK) providing the screenplay, and Tony Scott (who made one of the best least-regarded Quentin Tarantino-scripted films in 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE and the very good submarine thriller CRIMSON TIDE) behind the camera.  What we are left with is a new PAHLAM that bristles with a lean, mean, and tightly scripted plot by the typical assured and dependable Helgeland, who manages to dig deeper and sharper into the film’s characterizations than most other hack writers would have.  We also have two terrific performances with a nicely underplayed Washington and a freewheeling and creepier-than-normal Travolta, who seems to be relishing this opportunity at playing an unadulterated badass with issues.  On a story and performance level, PELHAM is a taught, suspenseful and absorbing heist thriller that grabs viewers and thoroughly keeps them involved.

The one truly regrettable causality of this renewed film is the direction of Tony Scott, who instead of grounding the story in a gritty and pulse-pounding veracity opts for yet again – sigh – injecting the film’s visual style with excessive and needlessly flamboyant artistic flourishes that only serves to distract from the good acting and the fairly intense script.  Scott been chastised by from me as of late for his predilection for unnecessary visual hubris: he disorients and pummels viewers with kinetic, MTV music video-styled cinematography and epileptic seizure-inducing editing (see MAN ON FIRE and, the worst culprit of them all, DOMINO).  Scott’s most recent thriller, the underrated time-travel mind bender, DÉJÀ VU, showed some promise for how he let his annoying, in-your-face style dial itself down just enough to let the story to breathe.  Unfortunately, he is back to his old bag of tricks with PEHLAM, using telephoto close ups, dizzying pans and tilts, hyper-telegraphed freeze frames, motion blurs, staccato cinematography, etc., all in a disagreeable effort to overwhelm the truly decent virtues of the film.  More often than not, Scott’s direction reveals himself  to be like a child that has had far too much caffeine and sugar injected into him while on set. 

Alas, it is Helgeland’s fairly enthralling script that wins over in the end.  PEHLAM 123 starts off with a bang and never looks back:  In the thrilling opening sequence we see a subway train leave New York’s Pelham Bay Park terminal in the Bronx at 1:23pm.  A crazed and wild eyed sociopath that refers to himself as “Ryder” (played with a go-for-broke gusto and monstrous energy by Travolta, sporting a handle bar moustache, demonic looking sideburns, and some aggressive body art on his neck) is out to put the city on ransom for giving him what he feels is a seriously raw deal with his prison term.  When he reaches Grand Central Station he jabs a gun through the motorman’s window and abruptly highjacks the train and its passengers (he does this with a series of obligatory, mean tempered henchmen, one played by Luis Guzman).  When the clock hits 2:13pm Ryder radios in to the city subway’s control center and tells the dispatcher on duty, Walter (Washington, a rock steady and calmly strong foil to Travolta’s histrionic perp) that if he does not receive $10 million dollars by 3:13pm that he will begin to execute one passenger every 60 seconds. 

What’s compelling here is that Ryder is not just a frothing at the mouth villain divorced from sanity: he’s actually quite sharp witted and shrewd.  He carries a laptop with him that allows for him to use the Internet for highly convenient purposes, like diving into the disreputable details of Walter’s past, which he uses as leverage in the hostage deal.  Ryder learns that Walter – whom he initially thought was a straight arrow with a heart of gold – is up on bribery charges, and Ryder knows just how to use this angle against the somewhat helpless dispatcher to get what he wants and when he wants.  This also makes negotiations very difficult for Walter, seeing as he is forced to frequently reveal intimate details of his history with the bribery charges – at Ryder’s insistence – so that the madman does not start offing passengers.  Just when Walter thinks that this pressure-cooker of a situation could not go any worse, a hostage negotiator named Camonetti (John Turturro) shows up, as does the Mayer of New York himself (James Gandolfini), the latter whom is nearing the end of his term in office and has his own personal demons he’s trying to forget about. 

By and large, PELHAM 123 crafts palpable tension and intrigue throughout its proceedings: The script is quite well grounded for how it places you – right from the opening credit sequence – into the direness of the train highjacking and hostage negotiations.   The film updates the original – I am inferring – by placing the events in a post-9/11 milieu of New York city life as well as having perhaps the unexpected effect of playing off of viewers’ ambivalence and hatred towards people who abuse their powers in Wall Street for financial aims that precipitated the economic meltdown (the shooting of the film, I am assuming, begin before last fall’s crash).  I mean, it’s relatively easy to inspire utter detestation in the audiences’ eyes for the villain here, seeing as he uses his knowledge and history with the stock market for his own duplicitous and twisted means.  Because of this, PELHAM 123 manages to prey upon our current anxieties a bit more than even the filmmakers anticipated. 

Along with the smooth-sailing and swift script, PELHAM 123 is really a showcase for allowing Washington and Travolta to shine.  The fascinating character dynamics between the pair allows for the actors to play off of one another so vigorously.  Having not one on-screen moment together until the film’s climax, the actors have to use their respective voices – not to mention their tainted and subverted ethics – to gain one-upmanship on the other.  These men, although presented on opposite emotional extremes – are not too dissimilar in terms of the troubling grey areas they occupy (the focal point that separates each of them from good guy to bad guy is a blurring one).  Washington is one of the finest actors of his generation at effortlessly dialing into his characters and with Walter he does a bravura job of underplaying both his need for anonymity, his desire to keep the past from infiltrating the present, and his moral imperative to do the “right thing” during an impossible hellish situation.  Travolta, on the other hand, is a fire-breathing, f-bomb uttering, jive taking, guns blazing and menacingly ruthless villain; some could say that Travolta overacts to inane levels, but there is an ecstatic liberation here in his choices and you can sense that the actor is relishing every minute to dissociate himself from past indiscretions, like wiping the stench off himself from comic turds like WILD HOGS.  Travolta has not been this infectiously fun to watch since FACE/OFF. 

PEHLAM 123 falters, though, with a few of the other side characters: John Turturro, one of my favourite actors, does a commendable job essentially spouting out just about every expository and rudimentary line in the hostage negotiator genre playbook here (it’s a case where a good actor does what he can with a marginal role).  James Gandolfini, who is capable of being such a seething and intimidating presence, is kind of limp here playing a stereotypical role of a politician with double-dealing motives (wow, that’s a stretch!).  Also, Helgeland’s script wavers a bit when it comes to giving some personality to the hostages themselves: hardly any of them are developed on an meaningful level, which makes it difficult for audiences to care about their plight.  The third act of the film and ensuing climax also nearly undoes what preceded it:  PEHLAM 123 is more dramatically explosive when Travolta and Washington interacted over the phone: seeing them in a dime-a-dozen physical standoff late in the film came off as rather preposterous, especially considering the type of persona that Walter has been developed as - it just felt false.

Then there is Tony Scott himself, who seems to engage in too much fetishistic, mouth salivating pleasure in substituting loud noises, brutal imagery, and overt stylistic aggression.  When he presents the verbal war of words between Travolta and Washington, Scott keeps the camera fairly static (the proper choice), but too many other sequences look like their were fanatically designed to show off his near pornographic compulsion to film every waking second of the film with a showy trick: when will he learn that to simply tell a good story that a director should tell it simply and not let his artistic smugness jeopardize the good aspects of the film?  Beat’s me.  However, Helgeland’s unsettling script and Washington and Travolta’s winning performances are enough to modestly recommend PEHLAM 123 as a reasonably gripping urban thriller.  More than anything, the film shows that a thriving and alive screenplay combined with high pedigree performances can proudly trump any level of gaudy editorial and directorial superfluities in the world.  Scott makes the film with too much hyper-adrenaline highs for its own good, but the script and actors bring the proceedings down to earth before it crashes

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