Sunday, June 14, 2009

Movie: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Come on. You knew this post was coming.

Regular readers are well aware of how I feel about the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s the movie I’ve seen more than any other. I have referred to it here variously as the perfect thriller, the quintessential New York movie, my all-time favorite film, and The Greatest Movie Ever Made.

When I heard that a big-budget remake was in the works - a second remake, actually - I had a brief bout of existential dread. It passed quickly, because I am a realist when it comes to the ways of Hollywood. I always knew I’d see the update. I like the people involved and the premise of John Godey’s novel – a carload of subway passengers held hostage – is still unbeatable.

In this open and optimistic spirit did yours truly approach the new version. And thus did he pronounce the new version ... good.

I’m going to keep comparisons to the still-unmatched original to a minimum and judge the new movie on its own terms. After all, New York itself has changed since ‘74, becoming slicker, more garish, more impersonal. I still go back home every chance I get. As a summer action film, the ’09 Pelham is an entertaining piece of work.

The material has been smartly updated in terms of technology and how New York City is now hardwired to respond to perceived acts of terrorism. It’s also been turned into a more conventional star vehicle with Denzel Washington’s regular Joe train dispatcher squaring off against John Travolta’s hothead criminal mastermind. This approach does not always pay dividends, but it quickly and clearly gets this version out of the original’s shadow. The best thing about the ’09 film is easily James Gandolfini as the mayor, offering a sharp and very funny gloss on current Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg.

The original film was made at a time when the city was falling apart, and a man with a plan could conceivably take advantage to get whatever he wanted. The only thing stopping him was the tenacity and spite of everyday New Yorkers, the working-class heroes who ride into the city on the 7 train. That’s a huge part of my affection for Pelham 1.0; it’s a movie where the good guys come from my old neighborhood. Enough of that spirit survives into the remake to make it worthwhile.