Tony Scott | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R
Based on a novel by Morton Freedgood (writing as John Godey), previously adapted into a classic ’70s thriller (and a forgotten ’90s TV movie), The Taking of Pelham 123 (aka 1 2 3, aka One Two Three) concerns the hijacking of the titular New York Subway train (that being the 1:23pm from Pelham) by a mysterious gang of men (led here by John Travolta) who begin negotiating with a regular-joe train controller (played here by Denzel Washington) for money in exchange for the lives of their hostages.
As with most remakes, the need for this film to exist is questionable. Reportedly the original novel tells the story from the perspective of more than 30 characters, “keeping readers off balance because it is unknown which characters the writer might suddenly discard”, but the 1974 film focused in on the relationship between the hostage taker and the de facto lead negotiator. This film emulates that dynamic. While Denzel Washington and John Travolta are both actors who veer between competent and great, and so could theoretically match the performances of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw in the earlier film, unfortunately they just don’t. Compared to the memorable characters created before, here the acting is crushingly adequate.
The writing doesn’t help, with stapled-on backstory additions that promise development and twists but ultimately go nowhere. Even the minor part played by the hostages is lesser here. In my review of the ’70s version I commented that I didn’t think they had enough to do, but that film did have a pleasing element of the hostages being more unlikeable than their captors. None of that here, where the captives are either even more unnoticeable, or heroic off-duty military types. So far so standard.
Otherwise, the film can be characterised as Tony Scott’s extraordinarily expensive take on a relatively straightforward story. Believe it or not, they pumped $100 million into this movie. Watching the disc’s making-of material, it becomes apparent how they managed to spend so much, but it remains strikingly needless. There was a tonne of research into how something like this might go down for real, including hiring former gang members for some of the supporting roles. Such attention to detail doesn’t come over on screen, the film still feeling like a Movie-Land thriller rather than a real-world drama. There was also a lot of Doing It For Real, including much filming in active subway tunnels. A headache to organise, and I’m sure an authentic experience for the cast and crew, but is the result on screen any better than they would’ve got from doing it on a soundstage? The makers clearly think so. I’m not convinced.
If those behind-the-scenes decisions are lost in the final film, then you can’t miss Scott’s whizz-bang direction. It’s the same grab-bag of visual tricks and ticks that dominated the latter stages of his career — jerky cutting, weird saturation, step printing, anything that makes the film look like it’s been massively over-processed. For me this extreme style sometimes worked (Man on Fire, Beat the Devil, even the unloved Domino), but, on balance, he probably went too far with it too often. Applied here to such a meat-and-potatoes tale, it feels like they’re trying to jazz it up because it can’t sustain itself otherwise.
Thing is, it can. Just about. There’s nothing special here; nothing to make modern audiences look back on it fondly in decades to come, as many do to the ’70s version. For fans of the genre, though, this is a solidly adequate experience.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.