Tony Scott doesn’t really do subtle. In his world, men can be counted on to do one of six things: kill, fly jets, drive cars really fast, run for their life, shout really loud, or be Denzel Washington. Women are scarce, and if they’re lucky enough to turn up centre stage, they’re killers themselves. Or an armed-to-the-teeth Keira Knightley. For Scott, movies are a kinetic blur of men being masculine, bullets flying, and cars flipping over.
So knowing that, it’s easy to enjoy The Taking Of Pelham 123 for what it is: a big, brash, and loud updating of an understated 1970s thriller.
Where Joseph Sargent’s 1974 original was nicely sardonic (how else to treat a film that has Walter Matthau as the conqueror of Robert Shaw?), mixing smiles and giggles with the occasional bursts of violence, Scott’s is all business. It has barely a joke in it, quickly setting up its conflict amidst a maelstrom of thumping music and lightning fast whip pans.
Travolta’s Ryder is the villain of the piece, replete with dependable bad-guy motifs: tattoo, aggressive goatee, shaved head. Accompanied by a similarly tell-tale gang of Eastern European heavies (and Luis Guzman), he hijacks a packed subway train, Pelham 123, demanding a $10 million ransom for the safe release of his hostages.
Enter Denzel Washington’s unassuming dispatcher Walter Garber, a man who consumes diet coke like it’s oxygen, before spilling coffee all down his top just to prove he’s not your classic action hero. And just as soon as the opening credits come to the end of their scrawl, and the camera starts to catch its breath, the stage is set.
Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland drop the group dynamic of the original, where each member of the hijack crew had a face and a personality (along with colour coded names, homaged by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs), and the film becomes what Scott loves best: two men duking it out.
It’s, in part, pre-determined by the star wattage of Washington and Travolta, demanding more screen time for an effective two-hander. While it means Pelham‘s supporting players remain largely anonymous and uninteresting (James Gandolfini’s New York Mayor is particularly ill served and under-used), it does allow the two headliners to indulge themselves.
For Washington, that’s a literal indulgence. Looking like he’s been able to enjoy himself at the dinner table, his Garber is a desk-bound Ordinary Joe who barely raises his voice throughout the crisis. It’s a far cry from his previous Scott role, toe-to-toe with Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide or breaking heads (and all else besides) in Man On Fire.H ere he’s a man of leisure instead of his usual man of action.
On the other side is Travolta, who gets to do enough shouting for the both of them, dialling up the histrionics and everything else he can. It’s very over-the-top, but the film needs it, livening up a middle section that largely consists of two men talking to each other over a radio.
Scott does his part too, rarely letting the camera settle to add movement to the film’s static situations and closed environments. He only knows one setting – high tempo – which works against the film in its final third as it fails to find another gear, but makes for an enjoyable first hour.
It’s all bluster and noise, of course, but it’s very good bluster and noise. And best not to think of it as a remake. Halfway through this veers more towards the generic blockbuster school of action movies, favouring big spectacle over character, the very opposite of Sargent’s original.
But this is a Tony Scott film. If you go in to it looking for nuance, you’re going to be disappointed. Taken for what it is, Pelham 123 does just about enough to make for an entertaining ride.
This being Blu-ray, Tony Scott’s visuals look as shiny and hard edged as they ever have, with a pulsating soundtrack to match.
On the extras front, it’s a case of as above, a serviceable selection that does the job without ever being exciting.
We’re treated to two commentaries, a solo one from director Scott, who’s a bit slow-going, the other a two-hander with screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black, which ups the pace a little bit and comes off as a nice conversation between friends.
The 30-minute ‘No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 123‘ does what it says on the tin, pulling together all the names for a no-frills series of talking heads and behind-the-scenes footage. But in Travolta’s recollection of Scott’s vision – “it’s the original on steroids” – it does contain a perfect shorthand review of the film.
‘The Third Rail: New York Underground’ is a 16-minute featurette on the New York subway and the filmmakers’ difficulties filming on it.
We also get a featurette on the film’s hair stylist, which at least scores points for originality. And the stylist, Danny Moulding, is great value, twirling his scissors and comb like a gunslinger does his guns. Although, comparing himself to Tony Scott (they’re both artists, he says) is a bit much.
‘Marketing Pelham’ sounds like a look at the promotion and publicity of the film, but it’s just a couple of theatrical trailers. And that’s your lot.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.