Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 was greeted with a near-universal chorus of ho-hums, a fate I do not think it deserves. Perhaps my viewpoint is different from other critics' because I never saw Joseph Sargent's 1974 original in its entirety until after I saw Scott's film. Sargent's film—graced by Peter Stone's witty, intricate screenplay, taken from John Godey's novel—is the better of the two. But that doesn't mean Scott's version isn't good. I generally don't approve of remakes, especially when the original is perfectly fine. I also could have done without Scott's penchant for flamboyant camera effects. (Be sure to take your migraine-strength Tylenol before you watch the opening credits.) Nevertheless, the new version of Pelham is still a nifty, edge-of-your-seat thriller, featuring two great stars at the top of their game and its own fine screenplay (this time by Brian Helgeland).
The two versions of Pelham present an interesting study in contrasting ways of presenting the same material. Call it Jerry Seinfeld vs. Jerry Bruckheimer. The original Pelham—made in the shadow of Watergate, the 1970s energy crisis and the John Lindsay-era meltdown of New York City's finances—presents a New York where nothing works, where everyone is on the verge of either a nervous breakdown or a shooting spree, and where trust in officialdom is at an all-time low. (Two-thirds of the way through the movie, a chorus of boos erupts in the street. "Jesus Christ, the mayor's here!" a policeman says.)
The hijacking plot of the malevolent Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) is just a more extreme inconvenience than usual in the lives of the subway hostages. Remarkably profane for its time (the f-word is much in evidence, though you had to wait for the remake to hear the mf-word), the original Pelham is populated with characters that react to the crisis either with abject panic (particularly the weak-kneed mayor played by Lee Wallace) or personal pique. Exemplifying the latter is "Fat Caz" Dolowitz (Tom Pedi), a choleric subway supervisor and proto-George Costanza. Heaving f-bombs at the fleeing crowds (who f-bomb him right back), Fat Caz waddles up the tracks, demanding to know who dares to stop his trains, and gets shot dead.
The only one who can see past his personal inconvenience to grasp the total crisis, despite being a world-class grump himself, is transit detective Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau).
Besides being a wiseass, Garber is casually racist in a way that would never be allowed for a non-villainous movie character today. (At the beginning he refers to a group of visiting Japanese dignitaries as "dummies" and "monkeys;" later, meeting for the first time a superior officer who turns out to be African-American, he starts and says, "I'd just thought you'd be—smaller.") Yet Garber is the only cop who knows both the criminal mind and the transit system well enough to guess what Mr. Blue and his gang are doing, as well as the only one with the guts to face down the hijackers in the Stygian darkness of the subway tunnel.
Sargent's Pelham is a bracing black-comic view of New York, a love letter to the city that simultaneously flips it the bird. The tone of the film can be divined by the presence, not only of Matthau, but of Jerry Stiller, George Costanza's TV dad and Ben Stiller's real-life dad. (Ray Romano's TV mom and Matthew Broderick's real-life dad also put in appearances.) The film is stuffed with actors who will be at least vaguely familiar to anyone who remembers movies and TV from the '60s and '70s, all in sharply etched roles as New Yorkers in screaming crisis. Though not a particularly big hit, the original Pelham had an obvious influence on movies and TV to come. (The plainest influence was on Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the conceit of crooks with color names for Reservoir Dogs.)
Scott's Pelham is much more of a straightforward action picture, of the type made ubiquitous in the past few decades by directors like Scott. The police-car-crash and runaway-train sequences originated with Sargent, but Scott punches them up through the rafters and into the stratosphere. Scott also adds a climactic chase scene, always a safe choice in a thriller but a definite contrast with Sargent, who dared to end his movie with a wry, quiet joke on the last remaining hijacker.
If action was the only point to Scott's version, it could be dismissed. Fortunately, it isn't. Comparing Helgeland's screenplay with Stone's is to feel the difference 35 years make, not just cinematically but historically. In 2009, New York has endured the horrors of 9/11 and is hanging on for dear life in the midst of the worst global financial meltdown in decades. Greed is pervasive, fear an everyday companion. It makes sense that the hijackers' demands in Scott's version of Pelham have outstripped inflation; Mr. Ryder (John Travolta) and his crew want $10 million, instead of the $1 million Mr. Blue demanded. And that $10 million is just a drop in the bucket (no fair explaining why).
Sargent and Stone presented virtually nothing about their characters' backgrounds, motivations or personal lives. Some people (especially the hijackers) were greedy bastards, a few were heroic, and the vast majority fell somewhere in between. The characters revealed themselves in what they said and did. But for Scott and Helgeland, background and motivation are crucial, particularly in the cases of Ryder and Garber (Denzel Washington).
Washington's casting is a clue as to how the role of Garber has changed. Rechristened Walter (in tribute to Matthau?), Garber is now a beleaguered, tainted family man, a high-level transit official busted down to dispatcher while the department investigates allegations of bribery. Garber just happens to be the dispatcher working the southbound desk when Ryder calls with his demands: $10 million delivered to the hijacked train in one hour, or else he will shoot one hostage for every minute the money is late.
From there, Scott does a good job of pacing the suspense (though, along with the camera tricks, I could have done without Scott's flashing "43 MINUTES," "12 MINUTES," etc. across the screen at intervals). A hostage negotiator (John Turturro) enters the action, as does the mayor (James Gandolfini). However, they have little effect on Ryder, a seething sociopath and self-styled Anton Chigurh, who glories in passing judgment on his victims and blaming them for his gory misdeeds.
Scott and Helgeland take full advantage of the computer technology, both plot- and CGI-wise, that did not exist in Sargent and Stone's day. Using the train's Internet system, Ryder finds news articles about Garber and the bribery accusations against him. Insisting on dealing only with Garber, Ryder bullies him, goads him, demands a confession on pain of a hostage's death. He insists he and Garber are brothers in their desires and motivations. Meanwhile, Garber works with the police and the mayor to find out who Ryder is and how he assembled his gang.
Scott and Helgeland introduce a theme—redemption—that played no part in the original. All the main characters in the new film have made serious mistakes of one kind or another; the differences between them can be measured in whether they can own up to their mistakes and how they make amends. To Ryder, everything is everyone's fault except his, and nothing matters except the size of his bank account. The extent to which the other characters can distinguish themselves from him defines their value as human beings. The mayor in the Scott version is nearly as unpopular as his counterpart in the original, thanks to a well-publicized sex scandal, but turns out to be a much better man. Similarly, the hostage negotiator, after an egregious error at the beginning, recovers himself and proves savvy and competent. As for Garber—well, that's the crux of the movie. In our talk-show-fueled confessional times, redemption is a fad. But it also is a basic human motivation, and Scott and Helgeland make it more than just an add-on to the plot.
Travolta's role is of course the showiest, allowing him to feast on the scenery—and few actors today make a tastier meal of that.
Washington is equally compelling in a much less flashy role; his famously wide range encompasses everything from saintliness to dire villainy, and this particular stop on the continuum—embattled, flawed but hopeful decency—suits him wonderfully. Gandolfini, who is always a treat to watch, makes a thoroughly believable big-city mayor, and Turturro is serious and straightforward as the hostage negotiator.
Scott and Helgeland don't provide as many distinctive smaller roles as Sargent and Stone did, but some minor players stand out nevertheless. I liked Luis Guzman as a member of Ryder's gang, Aunjanue Ellis as Garber's wife, and especially Alex Kaluzhsky as Geo, a teen hostage whose laptop provides a fragile link between the hijacked train and the outside world.
The two versions of Pelham can be seen as symbolic of the attitudes of New Yorkers at the times they were made. If the later version of the film seems more generic, alas so does the later version of New York. For that matter, so does the later version of the world.