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Blu-ray Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

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Just because a film is a remake – or perhaps a movie based on a book that was already made into a movie – doesn't mean the film is destined to fail.  To be less cryptic, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), directed by Tony Scott may not be a brilliant film (or terribly original), but it is a pretty exciting way to spend two hours.

Featuring a star-packed cast led by Denzel Washington and John Travolta, the film follows the hijacking of a New York City 6 train, the Pelham 1 2 3.  It is one of those films where the bad guys, in this case led by the enigmatic Ryder (John Travolta), have everything planned to the last detail, every eventuality worked out.  That is, they have every eventuality worked out except for there being someone with a little too much knowledge, too much intelligence, and too much guts working the other side of the hostage negotiation. 

In this case, that's Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a former muckety-muck for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) who, under suspicion of bribery, has found himself demoted.  Thus, he is the lucky man monitoring the Lexington Ave. subway and therefore the Pelham 1 2 3.  Garber, for some reason, strikes the fancy of Ryder and even when the real police, led by Camonetti (John Turturro) show up, Garber gets to stick around.

Also appearing in supporting roles are James Gandolfini, as the mayor (a Bloomberg-type) and Luis Guzman as Phil Ramos, one of Ryder's crew.  While both characters have some serious moments, they also serve, to some extent, as comic relief.  They also, along with Turturro's Camonetti, help take some of the burden off Washington and Travolta. 

That said, the conversations between Ryder and Garber are where the film works best.  The relationship, odd though it may be, is, if not believable, enjoyable to watch develop.  Early on, the Ryder proves himself capable of doing whatever it takes to get his money and smart enough to always be one step ahead of the cops.  Garber is just the poor guy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, John McClane, but without the police skills.

The over-the-radio Ryder-Garber relationship establishes the film as a taut action thriller.   Washington and Travolta are strong enough actors, and the dialogue they are given in Brian Helgeland's screenplay is good enough that even though the two men aren't face-to-face, the interchanges between the two become the best part of the film.  Watching Garber in a no-win situation talking to a man threatening to kill a train car full of New Yorkers is where the film uses most of its runtime, and it is time well spent.

The problems in the film crop up when Scott takes the easy way out in the third act.  He allows Ryder and Garber to come face-to-face, and while both actors are in good form, it is an unnecessary and all-too-obvious development.  Tony Scott's style has never been one of restraint, one of holding back and thereby making a better film.  Scott's is a style of excess both in story and camera work – moving cameras, fast motion shots, slow motion shots and deriving tension from those tricks.  With two great actors in the film, Scott could have, and should have, relaxed his visual style, refrained from putting the two man in the same camera shot.  The tension in Pelham is not heightened by any of it, and the fact that the resolution of the film is just plain silly is disheartening.  Instead, the sense the audience gets is that Helgeland and Scott just found the most expedient way to get their two heavyweight actors together and took it, not thinking about what it would do to the rest of the film.  Because of the disappointing third act, what was a well above average thriller with an interesting (if unoriginal) concept is brought down to mere mediocrity.

The Blu-ray release itself looks and sounds fantastic and is perhaps the perfect place to showcase Scott's hyperkinetic style.  The colors are bold and rich, the details perfect, and the film without a hint of dirt, noise, or imperfection.  The audio, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, has the surrounds play out beautifully; the bass kicks; and the dialogue (of which there is a lot) is perfect, whether it comes directly to the audience from someone on-screen or via a radio, with the accompanying crackle.

In terms of special features, the Blu-ray comes with a commentary track from Scott as well as one from Helgeland and producer Todd Black.  There is also a basic making-of piece as well as an interesting one on the NYC subway system and what it takes to film there.  There is also a ridiculous featurette on haircuts in the film, who did them, and how hair is important to Scott.  It plays out almost as a joke, and one can't quite tell why it was included.  The Blu-ray also comes with Sony's movieIQ feature, a digital copy, and something called "Marketing Pelham," which is just a different way of titling the inclusion of trailers.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is not a film that one can just turn off with thirty minutes to go, doing that would just leave the audience hanging.  Unfortunately, watching the last thirty minutes one can't help but get the feeling that those responsible for the film, who had crafted a good film to that point, turned themselves off.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
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