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Feature


Pending an ongoing investigation into his conduct, MTA dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is assigned to the Rail Control Center. His first day on the post the unthinkable happens—a group of heavily armed men, led by a man named Ryder (John Travolta), take a NYC subway train hostage. Ryder contacts Garber, and demands ten million in one hour, or he’s going to start killing hostages. Garber tries to pass the case off to Emergency Service Unit Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro), but Ryder demands his participation, and things go from there.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The
Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three isn’t the most obvious choice for big budget, superstar remake treatment, but it makes sense after taking the time to think about it. There’s some minor room for improvement, I suppose, but so many films have used the same basic formula throughout the years it seems counter productive to bother using the title. Sargent’s film, which was apparently re-made for television in the ‘90s, is a solid heist flick, teeming with ‘70s style, but remains a compelling exercise for the interaction of its stars rather than its plot or action quotient. What cooler actors to watch bounce off each other than Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw? Denzel Washington and John Travolta? Eh, not so much, but they’re both pretty fun to watch. Washington and Travolta play the characters differently than Matthau and Shaw, which is nice. Both actors bring a lot of baggage to their roles, and both treat the baggage differently. Travolta, as far as I’m concerned, overplays the part, and gives us more of the same crazy criminal bluster he trademarked back in the Face/Off days. Washington, on the other hand, makes an effort to underplay his character, and keep him separate from other similar characters like John Creasy from Scott’s Man on Fire, or Detective Keith Frazier from Spike Lee’s Inside Man.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The
More on the actors later, because this brings up a problem that one can’t help but compare the film to Inside Man, and the comparison unfortunately comes up in Lee’s favour almost every time. This comparison is subconsciously driven. Even when I made a concerted effort to not to compare the films I found myself doing it. For the sake of the obvious, both films feature Denzel Washington working through a hostage situation in New York City. John Turturro’s presence recalls Lee as well (though he wasn’t in Inside Man). The more important, and non-cosmetic comparison comes from the subtext of both films. Inside Man is practically a remake of a ‘70s heist flick too, just a less specific one, and Lee made the film as a not very subtle statement on post-9/11 relations in New York. Pelham director Tony Scott is less concerned with making statements, but he and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland are sure to point out all the post-9/11 reality of a modern heist flick. The comparisons don’t negate the filmmakers’ efforts, but surely hurt the film overall, especially Washington as a casting choice.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The
If I do everything I can to ignore these comparisons, along with comparisons to the original film, I still come up against the fact that Tony Scott drives me insane. Sometimes his audio/visual overload style, which has defined his direction since the days of Top Gun, is the perfect comfort food for a non-thinking pizza and a movie night, but other times his films are like headaches on screen. Sometimes they make me feel like an old man begging the neighbour kids to turn down that damn rock and roll music. Pelham 123 sees the director sleepwalking through his usual bombast. The guy has enough raw talent to ensure the movie doesn’t devolve into a mess, and that the look is consistently interesting, but he doesn’t appear to be putting much love into the project (I wasn’t a fan of Domino, but it’s clear that the director loved it). A director with love for the project would show patience. A director with patience would’ve pulled suspense from the clock ticking on the money drop, but Scott turns the scene into a middle movie car chase, complete with flipping vehicles.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The
In the end it feels like Scott doesn’t really matter, it’s the actors, and to a lesser extent the script. Despite his aggressive and familiar take on the character it’s hard to not enjoy Travolta when he’s firing on all cylinders, especially when he’s placed in a decidedly R-rated world. Washington’s solid performance is a non-story. The secret weapon is actually James Gandolfini, who I tend to overlook in these post- Soprano days. Gandolfini’s character’s success actually depends on audience preconceptions of both Gandolfini himself, and of New York City mayors. The performance both validates and inverts these preconceptions with minimal screen time. The rest of the cast follows similar lines of fulfilling stereotypes while maintaining a degree of genuine realism. The script runs hot and cold. At worst it’s predictable, even for a remake. All the changes, of which there are quite a few, are still genre standards, and the twists in the plot are. Yet the storytelling is deft, assuming you aren’t looking for surprises, the majority of the narrative is pretty realistic, and there are some well placed breaks for well pitched dialogue. Again, no matter what Tony Scott brings to the table as a flashy action director, this film is about the two leads working off each other, and this is where the success is best measured. As a character piece I’m surprised to admit the film works very well. The supposed gravitas of the finale is fumbled, but the majority of the journey is as good as can be expected.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The

Video


Welcome to the Tony Scott overload, where cameras never stop moving, and there’s a cut every minute or less. Tony Scott loves high contrast and plenty of fine grain. This consistent high contrast makes for a good high definition experience, full of sharp edges, deep blacks, pin-pointed highlights, and bright primary colours. Scott coats each set in a basic hue (the tunnel is gold, the train car is green, etc.), and then bounces coloured highlights off specific people and set pieces. The colours here are free of noise, and they never bleed, unless of course its Scotts intension. The crisp blacks are a definite high point as well. Overall sharpness is about as perfect as we can expect from film, and Scott’s love of wide angle lenses makes for some deep focus compositions that really up the ante on detail consistency. The high contrast and deep black edges certainly don’t hurt, and neither do Washington and Travolta’s faces, which are teeming with all kinds of nooks and crannies. The high detail also makes it easy to see all the Sony product placement.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The

Audio


And it wouldn’t be the Tony Scott experience without an overwhelming wall of abstract, hyperactive noise. The sun appears from behind a building? Whoosh sound! The wide angle satellite shot suddenly zooms? Zip sound! Man takes a sip from his coffee? Tidal Wave! Those of you that haven’t seen the film can only imagine what the guy will do with something as noisy as a subway train. The sheer quantity of screeching steel wheel sounds is enough to put your teeth on edge, and the rumbling bass of the train as it passing camera is as close as you’ll get to the real thing without leaving your house (unless you live in one of those crappy Chicago apartments that practically touches the elevated track). That last one is hyperbole, but the rest aren’t. It’s all a bit silly, but it makes for an exciting DTS-HD track. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is practically a parody of the kind of scores he’s worked on over the last decade-plus, specifically his video game music (parallels to the Metal Gear games series are so thick you half expect Solid Snake to tackle Travolta from around a blind corner at any minute). At the very least the music adds some extra stereo and bass elements to the mix, and audiophiles can enjoy the subtly of the mix, which allows dialogue and effects to escape for the even the heaviest musical moment.

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The

Extras


The extras start with two commentary tracks, one featuring director Tony Scott, the other featuring producer Todd Black and writer Brian Helgeland. Scott, whose voice is almost identical to his brother Ridley’s, is pretty down to business on the story behind the film, and the technical aspects of production, while Helgeland and Black are more concerned with the whys, and spend more time comparing this film to the original. Scott fills the space of the track very well, with very few silent stretches, but he’s not a lot of fun to listen to, so if you’re aiming to spend the time on only one of the two tracks I suggest the latter. The content of the two tracks is pretty similar, Helgeland and Black are just a little more entertaining to listen to, especially a story Helgeland tells about the behind the scenes of Man on Fire.

‘No Time to Lose: The Making of Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3’ (30:30, HD) is a good little EPK that covers the stuff from the commentary, including differences between this film and the original, development and research, the logistic difficulties of technical, on-site shooting, casting and characters, production design, and set construction. The major cast and crew are interviewed, along with the real-life people the production used for assistance and inspiration, and the whole thing is set to plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. All this seems to go against my assumption that Scott wasn’t in love with the film, of course. ‘The Third Rail’ (16:00, HD) takes a look at the reality of the New York subway system, and features more behind the scenes information. ‘From the Top Down: Stylizing Character with Danny Moumdjian, The Lab Salon’ (05:00, SD) is a look at hair dressing…

Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, The
Things are finished off with trailers for this and other Sony releases.

Overall


Tony Scott’s Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3 is definitely better than expected, but I still kind of find the whole exercise a bit of a waste. The differences between the original film and this one are many and varied, but the basic premise is still kind of generic. Scott is kind of a non-entity as a director, but the performances are strong, and the script is decent. Fans should be very happy with this disc, which takes full advantage of Scott’s high contrast visuals, and the DTS-HD sound takes full advantage of his overwhelming aural assault. The extras are good, but not great.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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