The summer of 2009 was one in which light was shed on an old Hollywood myth: movie stars sell tickets. Take two R-rated films that were poised to be big box office winners. The Hangover starred a cast of unknowns and had a great marketing campaign. The Taking of Pelham 123 starred one of the greatest actors alive (Denzel Washington) and another who has generally been a solid box office draw (John Travolta). What’s interesting is that Hangover wound up becoming the highest R-rated grossing film of all-time. Pelham 123 wound up with a respectable $121 million worldwide. A good haul for an R-rated action thriller, but not anywhere near where it should’ve given its pedigree. Which was a shame, as it has a terrific premise that crashes in its third act.
What starts as an ordinary day for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority turns into something extraordinary for dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Riding a desk after being suspected of bribery, he’s the man who takes the call when the Pelham train gets hijacked by a man calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) and three associates (Luis Guzman, Victor Gojcaj and Robert Vataj). Demanding $10 million in exchange for the 19 prisoners, Garber isn’t the only one dealing with the situation. There’s Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro), the police hostage negotiator who doesn’t have a fondness for Garber, and The Mayor (James Gandolfini), a Rudy Guiliani type counting the days until he leaves office.
It’s interesting the direction Tony Scott takes the film; the first was about the tension between criminals. This one is about tension between the men trying to negotiate a safe release of the hostages. And it’s an interesting tension between the three made better by having three great actors in the parts. This is a genre film but has better performances than one would think; it’s interesting to see the chemistry the three have. Washington in particular stands out. As one of the handful of men one could call the best living actor, Washington stands out by melting into the background as the average city employee. Everything that usually stands out about Washington is minimized; if he wasn’t the focus of the story it’d be hard to notice he’s there. It’s a chameleon performance that usually isn’t seen in this sort of film.
And for the first two thirds of the film it’s a first rate thriller. Scott keeps the atmosphere tight and intense, giving us an interesting situation. It’s not until the film’s final act that Scott manages to find himself in a bad position. Once it gets to the point where it has to become a big, loud action film instead of a smaller thriller the film suffers. Up until that point, Tony Scott and all his usual visual flair is making a great thriller about two men trying to play a chess match with dangerous ramifications. Once Washington and Travolta end up in cookie cutter roles as action hero and evil villain respectively the film loses a lot of steam and the requisite ending feels a little flat.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was never a massive hit in the 1970s and had already been remade in 1998 with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio, so it’s not surprising to see it remade again with stars with the pedigree of Washington and Travolta. It’s just not a great film, merely a good one.
Tony Scott is known for his visual and audio flair, sometimes to his detriment, and the DVD transfer is immaculate. This is a top-notch transfer, as for all the film’s detriments it comes through looking spectacular.
Commentary Tracks from Tony Scott and Writer Brian Helgeland & Producer Todd Black are included.
No Time To Lose: The Making of Pelham 123 is a making of featurette focusing on the film’s production. It’s interesting to hear Denzel and Travolta discuss why they took the film, mainly because of Tony Scott’s vision. Both acknowledged that the original Pelham is a classic and that they only signed because of how different Scott’s version was going to be. Part of the film’s allure for Washington was that an offhand suggestion that his character go from being a super-cop cliché to a working stiff put into an extraordinary situation ended up changing his character entirely. A lot of how Helgeland developed his characters is that he did an immense amount of research, going well into the criminal justice system to flesh out his characters and give the cast real life people to model themselves off of. Running 30 minutes, this is a fairly involving piece.
The Third Rail: New York Underground is a thirteen minute feature focusing on the New York subway system itself, with various members of the cast talking about how they used the system as children and later as adults, in some cases.
From the top down: Stylizing character with Danny Moumdjuan, the lab salon is a look at the film’s hair stylist and his inspiration for the film’s hairstyles.
Marketing Pelham is a collection of the trailers and TV spots for the film.
Previews for various Sony titles are included.
For a single disc release, The Taking of Pelham 123 has a couple terrific extras that are well worth the purchase.
Sony Pictures presents The Taking of Pelham 123. Directed by Tony Scott. Starring John Travolta, Denzel Washington, James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luis Guzman. Written by Brian Helgeland based on the novel by John Godey. Running time: 106 minutes. Rated R. Released on DVD: November 3, 2009. Available at Amazon.
Tags: Denzel Washington, James Gandolfini, John Travolta, Tony Scott