I had a rather interesting phenomenon happen before I saw the new version of “The Taking of Pelham 123.” I was flipping through the cable channels and found the original 1974 version on and decided to watch it. This allowed me to do an interesting comparison of the two movies when I found myself in the movie theater seeing the new version, just released into theaters.
The movie from 1974 called “The Taking of Pelham 123” was never meant to be a truly classic film. It isn’t a truly great movie. It is, however, a very good movie. It’s a thriller and it is well done and also has this strange sense of humor about itself. It starts, of all people, Walter Mathau as a transit police officer who suddenly realizes that his average, boring day is going to be anything but. Robert Shaw plays a man named Ryder who takes hostages and makes demands and orders people killed with a ruthless efficiency and a disturbing calm.
The story of the movie is very simple. On an average day during a busy day, the subway train known as Pelham 123 is hijacked by several men. In the 1974 version they all wear mustaches, big long coats, hats and glasses. They all carry machine guns. The uncouple the first car in the train and then hold the eighteen people in the car hostage and demand one million dollars for their release.
It a movie that does not move very fast. The guy playing the mayor looks so much like Ed Koch the former mayor might as well have gotten an acting credit. It takes its time. We get to know the people involved. There is a scene where the mayor brings in his advisors and they actively and slowly debate whether or not to pay the ransom. Later, the ransom is brought to the scene but the car that’s carrying it swerves to avoid a man on a bicycle and crashes. It flips onto its roof. Slowly, inexorably the tension builds and builds. Robert Shaw is terrifying in his calmness and the way he seems in total control, the only sign he might be nervous being the tiny sips he takes from a flask in his jacket.
Mathau is all smirking and joking until he’s talking to Shaw over a microphone. Jerry Stiller is also there, also working for the transit police. Mathau plays Water Garber as a very tired, very bored, very cynical transit cop who wears ugly shirts and even uglier ties in bright yellow. His face looks tired and droopy like a melted candle. Somehow, it is very much a snapshot of New York in the 1970s.
The mayor is booed when he shows up at the subway station. The city is cynical and it hates the people in charge. Meanwhile, the sets look very real. That really looks like a subway car in a real subway tunnel in a very real New York. Of course, it was filmed that way. This is not a movie that explodes on the screen. It’s very much like the act depicted in the movie. It unfolds and takes you by surprise. It builds, cranking up the tension and turning up the suspense and you are never really sure what is going to happen, or how the crooks intend to get away with what they are planning.
Now comes a remake in the year 2009. This time the stars are John Travolta as a modern man sporting a mean Fu Manchu mustache and covered with tattoos. On the other end of the microphone is Denzel Washington, having packed on a few pounds to play this role. Despite this he is still Denzel Washington and he still is handsome. James Gandolfini is the mayor. John Tuturro shows up as a hostage negotiator.
In the first movie, the people working for the transit authority spend a lot of time looking at boards with blinking lights that look like Christmas lights. In the new one it looks like fancy computer boards that would look right at home in NASA control room.
The new movie is directed by Tony Scott, whose brother is Ridley Scott. Tony likes to do movies that are full of action. His camera never, ever, ever, stands still. This is a movie where characters are literally sitting or standing places and talking, but the camera itself never stops moving. If the characters aren’t moving then the camera is circling them relentlessly like some nervous boxer in the ring for the first time.
In the first movie Robert Shaw runs the show with that cold efficiency. In this modern version John Travolta simmers like something on a hot skillet. He looks ready to explode at any minute and, in fact, he does explode at a moments notice. He looks like someone who is barely in control and not like someone who might have planned out a major heist down to the smallest detail.
The camera, meanwhile, keeps doing its thing. It never stops. It also does this strange thing where it slows down into some kind of strange slow motion. We can’t just have a scene where a helicopter flies over the skyline of Manhattan. No, we have to have several strange stuttering shots where the helicopter flies in slow motion over the city. The music, meanwhile, is filled with rap songs and pounds you relentlessly.
The performances are excellent. Travolta and Washington are both very good at this kind of movie. Travolta seems to be having a particularly good time playing the bad guy. One thing that could never be expected was that John Travolta would turn out to be an excellent villain. He plays these rules like a pro and he chews up the scenery like a hungry man at a buffet.
Washington manages to play any and very role he plays to the hilt. He is a man who is put-upon and tired, just like Mathau, but he doesn’t have the same hang-dog expression. He looks tired, but he plays a man working for the transit authority rather than a transit cop. Somehow that subtle change makes the entire role different.
Everything has been changed, charged and amped-up for the modern audience. This time the ransom is 10 million dollars. The body count it higher. The blood flies into the air freely. In the original movie we got to know the hijackers. Here they are just more bodies for the meat grinder and we barely even notice their faces. The sense of humor from the first movie is also noticeably absent this time around, exchanged for a non-stop urgency that tries to force the movie forward when it should be moving slowly.
Is the movie any good? Well, it certainly is entertaining. It never lets up for a minute. The performances are electrifying enough to keep you riveted to the screen. But this is a movie where the car bringing the money doesn’t just crash and flip onto its roof but it gets hit, rolls over a dozen times and then falls over and overpass and crashes onto a highway where it gets hit by another car. Nothing in the modern version is subtle like in the other movie.
“The Taking of Pelham 123” is a movie that never lets up and it never lets go. Will it be a movie people watch and want to see again and again thirty years later? Probably not. It’s a movie that is very much like the popcorn or candy you might buy when watching it. You enjoy it while it’s there, but you soon forget it after you’re done eating it. It will keep you entertained for the time you are sitting there watching it, holding on tight as the camera swoops and dives and swings around wildly, but you may feel a little guilty about it later.