Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Directed by Tony Scott

By Tony Sheppard
Capitol Weekly

In the early-mid 70’s, my father subscribed to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book series. This was my introduction to “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” “Jaws” and assorted other titles. I remember liking the story and, later, I enjoyed the 1974 film adaptation starring Walther Matthau and Robert Shaw. I don’t recall watching the 1998 TV remake, which, based on web comments, may have been a good thing, but it’s fair to say that this 2009 adaptation had to fill some pretty big shoes from my adolescence.

It’s a different film for a different time – there’s more blatant violence than I remember. John Travolta, as the lead subway hijacker, is unsympathetic and coarse. Denzel Washington, as the subway controller who takes the initial call (changed from a traffic cop in the original), is an overworked civil servant in the wrong seat at the wrong time. And a lot has changed in over three decades. You can’t realistically tell a story about a subway hijacking in New York City, or perhaps anywhere, without the subject of terrorism entering the screenplay, even if only as a source of fear.

But despite the differences and updates, the movie still works. It’s well-acted and tautly directed in real time, with neat action and solid secondary characters, including John Turturro as a hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini as the mayor. The basic plot elements remain the same, with the complexity and fears associated with the capture of a subway train under busy city streets being as compelling now as ever. Thirty-plus years later, “Jaws” still scares me when I’m swimming, and “Pelham” still entertains me.

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