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DVD Review

DVD cover

The Talking of Pelham 123 (2009)


Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro and Luis Guzman
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: 15
Available 11 January 2010

What starts off as a normal day on New York’s transit system, soon takes a turn for the worse when armed men take one of the carriages hostage. Tensions mount as the mayor agrees to their ransom, but how do they expect to escape from the underground? The only hope for a safe resolution appears to be in the hands of Walter Garber, who is himself under investigation for taking a bribe. Temporarily working as a train controller he builds a relationship with Ryder, the leader of the armed gang, but will that relationship be enough to save the passengers...?

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009 - 1 hr, 41 min, 38 sec) is a remake of the 1974 thriller directed by Joseph Sargent, staring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Taking their place in this new reimagining - apparently no one just makes remakes anymore - is Tony Scott, Denzel Washington and John Travolta. The original film was an above average thriller that still stands the test of time, so what does this new version bring to the table?

With the talent on show I was expecting much more from this film, that’s not to say it doesn’t have something to offer, but fans of the original may be forming a lynch party. The premise is fairly simple. An underground train is hijacked and a ransom demanded, it falls to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) to be the unlucky recipient of the hijacker’s demands, demands made forcibly (for that read "with a lot of swearing"), by their leader Ryder (John Travolta). Having set up the situation Tony Scott then diverges from the original plot to bring the two men together for the climax of the film.

What you have for the majority of the film is Ryder and Garber talking to each other. There is a sub plot about manipulating the price of gold, but it never really goes anywhere, or adds to the overall film. This being the case the film falls heavily on the shoulders of Washington and Travolta. Washington has always had that natural ability, as an actor, to play the average Joe, so he acts as the audience’s way into the tense situation. Here Scott adds another superfluous twist in throwing a subplot about Garber being guilty of taking a bribe. A lot more could have been made of this plot device to highlight that although Garber takes a moralistic stand against what Ryder is doing, he never really has an epiphany that he is himself, in this respect, on very thin ice.

Travolta plays Ryder as a two dimensional villain, true there are hints that this is an intelligent man whose ambition is greater than just ripping off a few million from the city, the problem is that the combination of prison tattoos and his use of colourful language rarely lets any of that intelligence or cunning see the light of day. We end up neither caring about him or cheering the good guys when they finally corner him.

Scott seems to have thought that a few changes to the plot and a more frenetic use of the camera were reason enough to remake the film for a modern audience, and in truth he is partially right. The original usually ends up as a late night movie, so there is likely to be a young audience who never saw the original. For the rest of use Scott has taken a slightly above average thriller and turned it into a modern slightly above average thriller, which in itself is a disappointment given the talent on display.

As well as the main players the film is ably supported by John Turturro, playing the police negotiator and James Gandolfini, playing the mayor. The cast do what they can with the script, but in the end it is the lack of anything really original which hobbles the film.

To bolster your experience of the film, the DVD does come with a pretty comprehensive set of extras starting with two full length commentaries, the first from director Tony Scott, the second from Brian Helgeland (screenplay) and producer Todd Black. It’s the usual sort of thing, but worth a single listen.

No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 123 (29 min, 12 sec) looks at the film's desire to move away from CGI for the action, preferring to use real trains and locations for a more authentic feel. Whatever you think about the film, it was made with an honest desire to make a good movie, and this comes over in this small documentary.

The Third Rail: New York Underground (15 min, 36 sec) takes a look at the real subway, the actor’s reaction to working in that environment and the problems of having a whole production on a commercial track. For those who want to know the third rail is the live one.

From the Top Down: Stylising Character with Danny Moumdjian, The Lab Salon (5 min, 17 sec) which looks at the art of hair styling. Apparently hair is something important to Tony Scott, who knew?

Marketing Pelham (6 min, 46 sec) which is actually a collection of trailers for the film and the DVD is rounded off with six trailers for other films.

The DVD picture is pretty good and handles both the techno-bright environments of the rail control room as well as the darker environments of the underground. The film has the options for either the original English audio track or an Italian dub.

In the end we have a film which tries to hide its narrative faults by a dizzying array of camera trickery, trickery which actually ends up working against the film.


Charles Packer

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