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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/3/2009

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/4/2009

It's been a while since we've discussed remakes. (A quick check reveals that it's been nearly a month. That's a long time these days.) In the past, most of the talk about remakes has been very negative, especially when the original film in question is a cherished one. But, we've also discussed that thin margin of forgiveness if the filmmakers choose to revamp an obscure or flawed film. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 may just fit those criteria, as it takes an older movie which isn't necessarily a household name amongst today's film fans and gives it a much-needed update. The result is a surprisingly solid thriller.

As The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens, we see New York City Transit Authority Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) engaging in what appears to be a normal, mundane day as a subway dispatcher. (Save for the fact that he's serving as a dispatcher while some charges against him are being investigated.) Meanwhile, Ryder (John Travolta), Ramos (Luis Guzman), and two armed henchmen hijack the subway train leaving Pelham station at 1:23pm. They park the train in a tunnel and detach all but the lead cars, leaving them with about 20 hostages. Garber radios the train to learn what is wrong, and finds himself talking to Ryder, who demands 10 million dollars from the city in one hour, or he will begin killing hostages. Despite the fact that NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) arrives, Ryder insists that he only speak to Garber. As the police and the Mayor (James Gandolfini) scramble to deal with the situation, Garber and his colleagues begin to realize that Ryder seems to have a lot of inside information and this heist may be more than it seems. With the clock winding down, and the tension rising, Ryder continues to pull Garber into his web.

I must admit that I haven't seen 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, nor have I seen the 1998 made-for-TV movie version, nor have I read the source novel, published in 1973. The only real prior knowledge that I had was that the story dealt with the hijacking of a New York City subway train. The trailer for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 offered little more information than that, and from it, I gathered that the movie was a straight-ahead heist movie where Washington and Travolta communicated via radio. (It should also be noted that the trailer contains some spoilers.) As it turns out, the movie is far more complex than that.

Again, I don't know much about the original movies and novel, but I did read several descriptions of them, and, to me, it sounds as if this new film added some improvements and a much-needed updating. If you re-read the above synopsis, you'll see that the film presented in the trailer is there, save for two important additions. The first is the fact that Garber is being investigated for misconduct. I won't say anymore about that and ruin the movie for those of you who haven't seen it, but this fleshes out Garber's character and makes him much more than a random guy who got caught up in a hijacking.

The second important note is the fact that Ryder's plan is so meticulous. This is what really drew me into the movie. At first, Ryder is presented as a dangerous thug who strong-arms his way into a hijacking. And, with his sideburns and neck tatoo, he looks like a thug. However, as the story progresses, Ryder reveals himself to be highly intelligent and he drops hints that he knows far more about the city and the transit system than the average crook would. As far as I can tell, some of these elements weren't in the other versions. Yes, this makes the movie feel like Speed at times, but it also makes it rise above some of the other, more pedestrian material.

There are some big names involved in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and they all do a fine job. Director Tony Scott has reached a point in his career where he often lets visual style slow down or destroy the story. The opening credits of this movie seem to go on forever and I was left with the sense that this was going to be yet another Tony Scott "blur cam" travesty. But, once the story gets going, Scott settles down and doesn't draw attention to the camerawork, save for the scenes depicting the police making the money transfer. Looking at Travolta's resume, he's played a surprising number of villains in the past, and he does a good job with Ryder. He clearly communicates the intensity and rage which the man feels, but that Travolta good-natured swagger is always underneath. I would love to see Denzel Washington take a non-serious role for once, but he's solid as usual as Garber, a man who is torn between his sense of right-and-wrong and his distaste for city politics.

I know that this would never happen, but it would have been great if the trailer for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 would have stated, "This movie is better than it looks." I didn't expect much from this movie, so I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging it was. The film is far from perfect -- when it's over, you'll be thinking about some loose ends -- but if you're in the mood for a thriller in the mode of Speed or Die Hard, you could do much worse.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 won't be getting off at the next stop on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 28 Mbps. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The image is very well-balanced, as it's never too dark or bright -- despite the fact that some of the subway scenes are dark. The colors look good, but they aren't overwhelming. This is the kind of solid transfer which reminds you just how clear a Blu-ray can be. The Disc contains a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This track takes great advantage of the sounds in the film. The passing subway trains fill the speaker, both front and rear, and we can also feel it rush past us. These trains also kick in the subwoofer, which is present, but never dominates the audio. The stereo and surround effects are highly-detailed, and match the on-screen action.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Tony Scott. This is followed by a second COMMENTARY with Writer Brian Helgeland and Producer Tood Black. "No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 1 2 3" (30 minutes) is a very detailed featurette which contains comments from the principle cast and crew. The piece starts with a discussion of the idea to update the story and goes from there. The players talk about the cast and characters, the production, Scott's insistence on realism, and shooting in New York. "The Third Rail: New York Underground" (16 minutes) is a mini-documentary which examines the New York City subway system. Using the movie as a jumping off point, the piece has comments from real subway workers, and the actors talk about their own experiences. "From the Top Down: Stylizing Character with Danny Moumdjian, The Lab Salon" (5 minutes) focuses on the hairstyles in the film. (I have to admit, I've never seen this before.) The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long