Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Photo: Columbia Pictures

Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 isn’t anywhere near perfect, but then again neither was the 1974 original. But that isn’t to say the two films can really be compared. As a matter of fact, the only similarity the two have is the title and the plot device. Scott’s Pelham exists in a hyper-real world we are told is New York, while the original Joseph Sargent film is New York. Scott’s film has a wiped-clean plastic feeling to it while the original was down in the dirt and gritty. As for the characters, their backgrounds have been changed, while the overall story remains the same. A group of bad guys led by John Travolta have hijacked a New York subway car and a transit desk jockey played by Denzel Washington is caught between the hijackers and the cops. How’s it all going to end?

To enjoy this film you have to shut down and reboot your system in preparation for Tony Scott’s signature frenetic style. Travolta is all aboard for the mayhem turning in an overcooked performance as the film’s lead antagonist that is almost laughable. Shouting expletives merely because the script tells him to, Travolta’s villain appears to have very little rhyme or reason as to what he is doing and his accomplices are just as ambiguous.

On the other end of the line is Denzel Washington performing just as you would expect him to. Washington’s an actor that will take whatever you give him and do it the best it can be done. He wasn’t given much with Pelham 1 2 3, but any negatives the film may have are not due to his performance.

Where Pelham may lose its audience is in Brian Helgeland’s “Screenwriting for Dummies” approach to the plot and characters. The only goal with this film is to get from point A to point B and manage to fill the space in-between with gunfire, flashing lights, yelling and a car crash, but I’m not really complaining. This film serves its audience just as well as any summer potboiler can. Its R-rating is the real puzzler when it easily could have gone for PG-13, upped the ticket sales and made Travolta’s villain a bit more believable in the process.

Outside of Travolta yelling the amount of time left on his ticking clock followed by, “Check me motherf**ker!” every five minutes, this film has limited reason for its rating, and the dedication to expletives is one of the main reasons Travolta is so unconvincing. Then again, no one in Travolta’s gang is all that intimidating. They hardly seem to exist to tell you the truth. I can’t even remember if we ever find out all of their names. But who cares? Let’s crash some cars, shoot a couple of innocents, call the mayor and after we save the day pick up a gallon of milk to take home to our lady in waiting.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 isn’t meant to be taken too seriously and for that reason it exceeded all my low expectations. The film is just as absurd as the trailers insinuate, but Scott has enough talent as a director who seems to be stuck in neutral to keep things interesting for the duration. If you are looking for mindless action that ends just as you think it will give this one a shot. Otherwise, wait for it on DVD and perhaps make it a double-feature with the 1974 original and decide for yourself which one is better.