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THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, 2008
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THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 MOVIE POSTER
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123
Movie Reviews

Directed by Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzmán
Review by Jen Frankel



SYNOPSIS:

Armed men hijack a New York City subway train, holding the passengers hostage in return for a ransom, and turning an ordinary day's work for dispatcher Walter Garbe into a face-off with the mastermind behind the crime.

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REVIEW:

Tony Scott is a damn fine filmmaker, and he's only getting better with age.

The Taking of Pelham 123, based on the same novel as the 1974 classic, has Scott's signature music video sensibility which carries on through the opening credits to the last frame. This guy has moves and shots that no one else would think of, and still the action is clean and clear and relentlessly fascinating.

The original Pelham, a very fine film, stuck close to the book and delved into the various psyches of the hijackers, including an unforgettable performance by Hector Elizondo, not to mention Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw at their powerhouse best.

But short of the basic premise and some glossed-over plot devices, this new Pelham is a different beast altogether, a dialogue between two men with a lot to lose.

Scott's all-seeing eye never stops revealing the minutiae of the characters, whether it's a remark that comes out unintendedly racist, or the passenger who is emasculated when he can't relieve himself with anyone watching him.

He has a surprisingly light and natural touch with the abundant jokes in the film as well, and keeps the highly pumped action bearable with sly humor. At one point, he even gets a laugh by having a character point out what could be interpreted as a potential plot hole.

The cast is remarkable: it's fun to hear Gandolfini without his New Jersey gravel as a kind of ineffective and out of shape Giuliani, and good to see John Turturro returning to a role that uses his capacity for gravity for something other than a comic turn.

Travolta as the apparently amoral Ryder, leader of the hijackers, seems to be bookending the revival of his career in Pulp Fiction; if he never plays another role in his life, this is the one to go out on. He's demonstrates the edge he has when he's at his best, and he's seldom been better.

Denzel Washington steps out of his comfort zone a little, packing on a pot belly to play a career civil worker stuck in both an ethics investigation and a deadly game with Ryder.

This is also one of the first films I've yet seen to seamlessly and intelligently incorporate new media without sounding like a "Modern Technology for Dummies" tutorial. A subplot with a live streaming broadcast of the hostage situation in progress seems under-developed, but works well enough.

The new Pelham is a potent cocktail of politics, bureaucracy, and raw emotion. Still, one of the things that made the first interpretation so damn good was the interplay between the much more defined personalities of the hijackers, so it remains very worthwhile to watch the original as well. And like a pair of subway trains on separate spur lines, these two diverge especially in their outcomes. 2009's ending will be easier for modern audiences to handle, while that of the '74 version had a bit more of a nihilistic take on the outcome in keeping with the times.

All in all, the film is really smart and really tense, and puts together some of the strongest personalities working in film today to make up one of the best ensemble casts in decades.

In a nostalgic sense, it feels like a 70s film, from the cuts and the roving camera to something about the intensity of the emotions. There's a bit of a Dog Day Afternoon sensibility, and I liked it a lot. If you're missing flicks like Mean Streets and The French Connection, you'll get some of that same feel here.

The adjectives smart and stylish get thrown around a lot when it comes to action flicks; this one is the real thing. Highly recommended.

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