I am velvety-smoothReview is BELOWI am veltely smooth, too
BR: Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The (2009)
Film:   Good    
DVD Transfer:   Excellent  
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DVD Extras:   Excellent

Columbia / TriStar

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November 3, 2009



Genre: Suspense / Caper  
A group of armed men led by a doughy John Travolta with bad hair dye hold subway passengers for hostage, while the city scrambles to meet the million dollar ransom payment in less than an hour.  



Directed by:

Tony Scott
Screenplay by: Brian Helgeland
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams
Produced by: Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Tony Scott, Steve Tisch

Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzman, Victor Gojcaj, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, Ramon Rodriguez, and James Gandolfini.

Film Length: 106 mins
Process/Ratio: 2.40:1
Anamorphic DVD: Yes
Languages: English DTS-HD Master Audio, French DTS-HD Master Audio, Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio, English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish (Catalan) Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:  English SDH, English, Catalan, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Special Features :  

Audio commentary #1: Director Tony Scott / Audio commentary #2: screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Todd Black ‘ 4 Featurettes: “No Time to Lose: The Making of Pelham 123 (30:22) + “The Third Rail: New York Underground” (16:12) + “Marketing Pelham” (7:06) + “From the Top Down: Stylizing Character” (5:15) / CineChat / Digital Copy

Comments :

Tony Scott’s third film version of John Godey’s novel is generally close to its basic story of a New York City subway train hijacked by thugs with an agenda for cash and a smooth escape, and the director’s ADD visuals actually suit the story’s tense situations of characters forced into desperate circumstances, but typical of his recent films, the zoom-ins, shaky cams, and multiple angle flips sometimes render a perfectly straightforward car chase into an incomprehensible mess.

Much like Unstoppable (2010), however, Scott likes to smash real vehicles in real locations, so much of the action involves pure carnage inflicted on genuine trains, cars, and motorcycles. In Brian Helgeland’s script, some of the character ages and background details have changed, but once the Pelham train is under siege, the story’s major revisions kick in, assuring the film’s two pricey stars converge in a lengthy chase through Manhattan, and a final (clichéd) confrontation.




The thugs’ ringleader, Ryder (John Travolta), is now a convicted investment broker who stages the chaos to affect the stock market and create a massive windfall within a matter of hours – a bit rich for audiences to absorb – and the disgraced, aging motorman (Ramos) who concocted the ransom scheme is now reduced to a throwaway character who dies a third into the film.

By killing off Ramos (a wan role for able Luis Guzman), the focus becomes firmly locked on Ryder and his effort to flee the scene with the ransom delivery with his unmemorable accomplices, but the death of Ramos – a partially sympathetic character in the 1974 film -  also robs the filmmakers of recreating the same quiet twist finale. That mandates turning chief dispatcher Garber (Denzel Washington) into a more pro-active hero who eventually confronts Ryder after contrived chase involving trains, cars, and running across a bridge.

As Ryder, Travolta’s fine, but the character feels wrong for the film because we’re supposed to accept the former investment broker as a fatter, angrier brute, affected by nine years in jail (hence the neck tattoo). Travolta’s Ryder, however, is a bit more humane than Robert Shaw’s 1974 interpretation – an icy, greedy organizer (self-titled “Mr. Blue”) at ease with hostage executions.

Washington does his humble working man thing, and he plays Garber as another fair-minded, decent man dragged into an ugly situation but kept sane because of his streetwise attitude, and fast-thinking from decades of being on the job.

None of the hostages are memorable, and the patient transit cop from the first film has been morphed into a black youth who volunteers to take the place of a mother slated for execution.

The thugs, in turn, have been further distilled into menacing mugs with little dialogue amongst each other, eliminates Helgeland’s need to dramatize internecine conflicts that brewed amongst the characters in the 1974 film. That scripting decision streamlines the main opponents and gives the two stars wiggle room for extra scenes to expound on their corrupted pasts: Ryder is a disgraced and convicted suit, and Garber is currently under investigation for accepting a fat bribe; it’s another new character tweak meant to create some symmetry and common experiences between the characters, but a far easier chore than writing characters who periodically try to find common ground in spite of disparate life experiences (which is what Helgeland should’ve done).




To accommodate these new modifications, Helgeland junked the conflicts between the hostages and the thugs and opted for a familiar playbook, but the trade-off was a loss of minor threats and danger situations that allowed audiences to weigh their own possibilities of a peaceful outcome. As it stands, the 2009 version is just another slick thriller that purports to explore the dilemmas of working stiffs getting through another day in a tough town.

James Gandolfini’s Mayor is the only vestige of the original film’s overall tone of people having a really bad day, spouting acidic insults at any humanoid form; the snarling repartee from Peter Stone’s script is barely present because Helgeland’s chose to isolate and pack all the anger and rage into Ryder, giving him full bandwidth to rant and spew profanity - but it’s a decision that also makes Ryder rather predictable.

Although set underground, Tony Scott’s production weirdly maintains a balance of elegance and stylish grubbiness, boasting beautiful pastel lighting and colour schemes; the original film was much more docu-drama in feel, whereas the 1998 TV movie was re-rendered with desaturated, metallic colours.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is his familiar blend of electronics, bass, and fuzzy percussion, and after scoring several films for Scott, he knows what sonic combinations support the director’s kinetic / chaotic filmmaking style without swaying into the bombast and melodrama of mentor Hans Zimmer. Gregson-Williams tends to focus on abstract and visceral sounds, and he saves any warm harmonies for the finale, when good working man Garber heads home to his wife with the promised a half-gallon of milk.

For subway enthusiasts, the location work is generally superb, and Scott’s production made use of some underused sections of the NYC transit tunnels, including the Transit Museum, and Roosevelt spur (see pics) that’s still used by major officials and diplomats to enter and leave the Waldorf Astoria hotel through a hidden station.

Sony’s Blu-ray comes loaded with multiple commentary tracks and making-of extras, and the only qualms are the slow loading times for the annoying BD-live material, and the batch of trailers and promos that can’t be bypassed, wasting the viewer’s time.

Equally frustrating is the label’s standard practice of multiple no-copying, FBI, and don’t-sue-us-because-we-said-something-in-the-commentary disclaimers in English and French that precede the film. Sony’s been using this paranoid disclaimer package for about 10 years on their DVDs, and it’s childish.


© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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