By Colin Moore
New York, New York – the city that never sleeps and may never again for 17 hapless subway passengers. They’ve boarded Pelham 123, a train that’s departed the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park station at 23 minutes after 1 o’clock. But four similarly dressed men have also boarded, men with tweed hats, false beards and guns, the crayon-colored (and pre-”Reservoir Dogs”) Mr. Brown, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green and Mr. Blue. The group is lead by the frigid Mr. Blue (”From Russia With Love”’s Robert Shaw), a British mercenary with expensive tastes. No one gives an evil eye like Shaw.
After a brief preamble, the men hijack the train and pilot the lead car into the darkness of a subway tunnel. Here they begin their ransom demands – one million dollars to be paid by the city in one hour. It’s a tall order backed by an icy threat. For every minute the payoff is late, a passenger dies. N.Y. Transit Authority cop Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is the officer on duty at command central. He takes Mr. Blue’s instructions over the radio while trying to talk him down, without effect. In the meantime, the world around them squabbles.
”The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” is a cynical 1970s New York story with shades of ”Death Wish”, ”Dog Day Afternoon”, ”Taxi Driver” and scores of others. Its Big Apple is not a shining beacon of prosperity, more a simmering pot of unwanted leftovers. Decaying infrastructure, drug and gang ontogeny, fiscal hardship and government mistrust are the new norm. Criminals have to be stopped naturally, but you can’t help but be a little sympathetic in this town. “The city made me do it,” the men might say in their defense. If Pelham leaves the viewer with any overriding impression then, it’s that New York is a metropolitan cocktail of piss, vinegar and bullheadedness. It’s a good enough reason to watch. Underneath David Shire’s brassy score we can experience big-city attitude in everyone we meet, from subway workers to commuters to the city’s deputy mayor (Tony Roberts), who tries to infuse his flu-ridden boss with the spine to pay the million-dollar ransom. It’ll buy him votes after all, and he needs them.
What’s noticeably absent though are the meatier characterizations of the previously mentioned films. ”Pelham” has no dramatic equivalent to Bronson’s Paul Kersey, Pacino’s Sonny nor DeNiro’s Travis Bickle. Shaw’s Mr. Blue is menacing and Garber a likable sourpuss but that’s all. There’s little to be learned about either character and no real friction between them. Compare with the remake. Director Tony Scott (”Top Gun”, ”Enemy of the State”) put his hyper-kinetic stamp on the story in 2009. It’s not better, just faster, louder, bloodier and better suited for attention deficient viewers, the kind who might brush their teeth with Red Bull.
But there is at least an attempt to flesh out the main characters. In this version, Garber (Denzel Washington) is a transit employee under investigation for taking a bribe, while John Travolta’s Mr. Blue (here called Ryder) is now a potty-mouthed Wall Streeter turned manic subway hijacker. The more they talk, the more their fates become entangled. It’s more or less a welcome addition to the story but Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (”L.A. Confidential”, ”Mystic River”) seem determined to do more than tweak a perfectly good original. They want to amplify it. The result is an over-edited blur of noise and color almost indistinguishable from any other action movie featuring males in kevlar, a worried wife at home, and a ”Die Hard” inspired twist. Even the suspense generated from the fact that each side was unaware of the other’s actions in first Pelham is squashed here. The culprit? Social networking and the Internet. For me these send a clear message: go for a stroll in the lobby. Maybe the Shaw/Matthau version is playing down the hall….in 3-D.
Blu-ray Details and Extras
No extras on here save for the original trailer, but for a film this age the film – presented in 1080p – looks quite good.