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THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, Michael Rispoli, James Gandolfini
Director: Tony Scott
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: November 3, 2009

“Life is simple now. You just have to do what I say.”

Film ***1/2

As aggravated as I am by the consistent remake factory that Hollywood has basically become, it is very refreshing to come across one that comes pretty darn close to measuring up to the original. Director Tony Scott has delivered just that with his crackerjack, intense, visually engaging remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. With Scott at the helm and two fantastic actors on top of their game, this remake was fortunate have all the right ingredients.

The original 1974 movie was basically Die Hard before there was Die Hard. It was an invigorating thriller, adapted from the best seller by John Godey, set in real time pitting an NYC transit cop against a trio thieves who take a city subway train hostage in exchange for a million dollars. It also featured two of the best performances from Walter Matthau as the everyman cop and Robert Shaw as criminal mastermind.

For the remake, Tony Scott applies his unique, kinetic visual aesthetic to the story. This time around the screenplay, penned by Brian Helgeland (who also penned Scott’s Man on Fire), is set in a post-9/11 NYC, which is obviously a different breed of city environment than the NYC of the 70s. Technology also plays a big role in the remake, and Scott has always proven to be effective with incorporating it into his films, as seen in Enemy of the State.

The movie has one of the best opening title sequences of recent memory.  Scott’s in-your-face visual style and a great use of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” grab hold of your eyes and ears and perfectly set the mood for a fast paced, relentlessly intense thriller that only Tony Scott can deliver. And in spite of a not so thrilling final bit, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is nothing but ferocious cinematic intensity.

The roles originated by the late Matthau and Shaw are now portrayed tremendously by Denzel Washington and John Travolta, who provide perhaps the best cinematic duel of wits in quite some time. Walter Garber (Washington) is an NYC train dispatcher overseeing all the routing of the city’s subways. The character in the original was named Zachary Garber, but was changed to Walter as a nod to Matthau, which I think is a very classy move.

As Garber notices that one particular train, Pelham 1 2 3, has stopped moving, he gets a nasty greeting by a man named Ryder (Travolta) on the other end of the radio. He and three other men have taken the train and its passengers hostage. Ryder demands the city pay up a fee of $10 million in one hour’s time, or he will start executing passengers.

The movie makes effective use of the ticking clock once Ryder issues a deadline. Tony Scott has become something of an innovator when it comes to subtitles and title cards, and the ticking clock periodically pops up on screen, which does help in cranking up the tension. And Scott also delivers plenty of jolts with the way he handles the money transfer itself, as cop cars race through the streets of NYC, ending with what has to be one of the most jaw-dropping car accidents ever caught on film. 

At the heart of this intense movie is the byplay between Washington and Travolta, whose characters are in constant communication via radio. Ryder and Garber reveal quite a bit to each other during this ordeal. Garber, at one point, is even forced to come clean about a scandal involving him and how that led to his current demotion at work.

With this role, John Travolta reminds us what an outstanding actor he is, especially when it comes to playing baddies. And this may just be his most effective villain to date. Ryder is a live wire, ready to snap, and never hesitant about living up to the threats he makes.

The only setback of the movie is a final act that could’ve been way tighter. Whereas everything that preceded it was completely loaded with tension, the climax seems lack it. It’s not a terrible ending, just one that could’ve delivered much more suspense.

But that one flaw is very much outweighed by the many strengths of this tightly wound ticking time bomb of a thriller. It’s actually one of Tony Scott’s best films of recent memory. His visually energized directing, combined with the fantastic performances from Washington and Travolta, make this a power-packed piece of entertainment that shouldn’t be missed.

Video ****

Tony Scott’s high energy visual directing style and Blu-ray were always meant for each other. And this Sony release boasts one amazing and astonishingly looking presentation. The 1080p delivers quite a bit of eye candy here. Image detail is beyond fantastic and the many colors associated with Scott’s visual style appear in the most dynamic form imaginable. One of the best looking Blu-ray releases to come out this year!

Audio ****

Though this more of a dialogue-oriented film than one would expect, a Tony Scott movie always comes locked and loaded with furious level of sound, which the DTS HD 5.1 mix takes full advantage of. The opening credit sequence alone will rock your sound system. The intense music score also delivers the goods to the sound channels, and the brief bits of action will knock your socks off. Dialogue delivery is also thoroughly strong.

Features ***

Included are two commentary tracks; one with Tony Scott and one with screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black. There’s also three featurettes, “No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 1 2 3”, “The Third Rail: New York Underground”, and “From the Top Down: Stylizing Character”. Lastly, we get several Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots, and Bonus Previews for additional Sony releases.

Summary:

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is one of the more effective remakes to come out in quite some time. Tony Scott intense visual style is well suited for this technology-fueled suspense piece. And fans of Washington and Travolta should definitely check it out!

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