The original PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is a gritty, realistic thriller directed by Joseph Sargent that goes out of its way to cast unattractive actors to make it more authentic. Stars Walter Matthau, Jerry Stiller, and Robert Shaw, all good actors, would not be considered sex symbols. The more jowls and wrinkles on these actor's faces, the better. PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is the predecessor to TV Producer Dick Wolf's LAW & ORDER shows that also cast shaggy dog actors like Jerry Orbach or Richard Belzer as protagonists. So when Columbia Studio decided to remake the film in 2009, slightly changing the title to THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 (numbers instead of words) who better to jazz up the story and visuals then the king of over the top action films Tony Scott (Ridley Scott's brother) who gave us TOP GUN (1986) and DAYS OF THUNDER (1990). I bet you most filmgoers have no idea that Tony Scott's film is a remake.
Sargent's THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE could be a companion piece to those other gritty films shot in real New York locations like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) or DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975). Based on the novel by John Godey, the screenplay is by Peter Stone who also wrote the clever Hitchockian thriller CHARADE (1963). The film kicks off with a great jazzy musical score by David Shire. PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is about four criminals: Mr. Blue aka Bernard Grier (Robert Shaw); Mr. Green aka Harold Longman (Martin Balsam); Mr. Grey aka Giuseppe Benvenuto (Hector Elizondo); and Mr. Brown aka George Steever (Earl Hindman) who hijack a New York City subway train and demand one million dollars in ransom or they will start killing one hostage at a time. The leader is Grier, a former mercenary who has the plan meticulously worked out. Each man wears a disguise. They board at different stations. They call each other color code names.
Negotiating with the hijackers and trying to catch them at the same time is Transit Police Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) and his partner Lieutenant Rico Patrone (Jerry Stiller). It's a game of cat and mouse between Garber and Grier. Grier demands one million dollars. Al, the Mayor of New York (Lee Wallace who resembles former New York Mayor Ed Koch) and his advisers including Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle (Tony Roberts) debate whether they can drum up a million dollars from their broke city but the Mayor gives in, deciding he doesn't want 18 dead bodies hurting his reelection. Meanwhile, the New York SWAT team creeps toward the one subway train and a brief firefight ensues. As the New York police rush to deliver the money, Grier executes the Train Conductor (James Broderick) in retaliation for Mr. Brown suffering a gun shot wound.
Once the hijackers have the money, their escape plan begins. They change out of their clothes and remove their disguises. Longman, a former subway conductor, sets the subway train to move without a driver, sending the subway car and its passengers speeding down the tunnel. They split up the money equally and prepare to head to street level. But like most movie heists, the best laid plans begin to unravel. Grier and the hot tempered, trigger happy Mr. Grey have a fatal disagreement. Mr. Brown is shot by a plainclothes cop who was on the train and has crept down the tracks. Garber stumbles onto Grier still down in the subway. Grier, a man of principle and discipline, touches the third rail on the track, electrocuting himself rather than going to prison.
All that's left for Garber and Patrone to hunt down is the fourth hijacker, the former subway conductor Longman. Instead of a big finale chase scene or shootout, screenwriter Stone comes up with an anti-climactic but satisfying conclusion that consistently stays with Garber's calm, police procedural approach to capturing the criminals. Interestingly, PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is one of the few theatrical films that director Joseph Sargent made. He primarily worked in television. His only other feature films of note are WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) starring Burt Reynolds and the forgettable JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987).
PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is many things. It's a heist film with four hijackers who have little in common except greed. Longman aka Mr. Green (Balsam) is the only one with a beef with the Transit Authority. He was fired for a trumped up charge (which when he explains it sounds plausible). Mr. Blue (Shaw) is the most mysterious of the four. He's a mercenary with military experience (which explains the precision of the heist) who has turned to robbery as the mercenary business has dried up. Director Quentin Tarantino's RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), another robbery film gone bad, pays homage to PELHAM ONE TWO THREE as the robbers in Tarantino's film also have color names like Mr.Pink, Mr. White, and Mr. Orange.
At the same time, disaster films like AIRPORT (1970) and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) were stirring up big numbers at the box office. If catastrophes could happen to planes and ships, why not a subway train. PELHAM ONE TWO THREE tries to capitalize on the disaster film element in the last act as the hijackers send the hijacked subway car racing through the tunnel with no conductor and at high speeds to throw off the authorities. Screenwriter Stone fills the subway car like a Noah's Ark of stereotypes (and the credits even acknowledge the parts). Included in the subway car are Hispanic, Black, Jewish, Homosexual, Hooker, and Pimp. Young and old, men and women are all represented as well.
Director Sargent goes for authenticity over glamour in this PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. All of the cast especially the Transit employees, police officers, and city politicians all look like real people. There is no gorgeous blonde nuclear physicist or dazzling redheaded biochemical engineer to be found. Wrinkles on the face, saggy stomachs, thick sideburns and moustaches, heavyset actresses, there are no beautiful people to be found. PELHAM ONE TWO THREE also examines how a city works under crisis. As portrayed in this film, the answer is not very well. Different agencies don't cooperate with each other. City officials like the Mayor are portrayed as idiots, more concerned about the political fallout than innocent lives.
Rising above it all is Walter Matthau's Lt. Garber. He's the calm in the maelstrom of disbelief and tension in the Transit Center control center as the hijacking occurs and the subway schedules break down. Matthau has a few wisecracking moments but he plays it mostly straight. He's part negotiator, part detective. Robert Shaw as the leader Grier is also calm, methodical, and in control. Grier is Garber's doppleganger in a sense. Grier seems ruthless but tiny, seemingly insignificant miscues lead to their heist unraveling. Martin Balsam as Longman is the most sympathetic of the hijackers. Movie fans who are used to seeing Hector Elizondo play warm characters in Gerry Marshall films like THE FLAMINGO KID (1984) or PRETTY WOMAN (1990) will be surprised by his turn as the lewd, sociopath Mr. Grey.
Other familiar faces to look for include Woody Allen's favorite movie buddy Tony Roberts as the Mayor's adviser, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND'S mother Doris Roberts as the Mayor's wife, and great character actor Kenneth McMillan (RAGTIME, DUNE) as a Borough police commander.
Flash forward 35 years and the subways still play a vital part in transporting New Yorkers all over the Big Apple and its boroughs. Tony Scott's THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3 crackles with virtuoso. Scott shoots the film in his usual MTV video style with fast edits and slow motion, swirling and twirling camera moves around the actors, a palette of colors blinking and reflecting off glass partitions and windows. The subway control center where Garber (now played by Denzel Washington) works is a sophisticated, computerized hub. The hijackers are now called terrorists (although they are still hijacking the train). Writer Brian Helgeland (LA CONFIDENTIAL, A KNIGHT'S TALE) stays with the original storyline to a degree but infuses today's headlines and technology (Wall Street corruption, terrorism, GPS, and laptop computers) into the film.
When Ryder radios in that Pelham 1,2,3 is under his control, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) takes the call at the control center. This Garber is not a police lieutenant like Matthau, just a dispatcher. Garber is under investigation for possibly taking a bribe. Ryder makes his demands to Garber. The Transit Authority dispatches a negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) to assist with Ryder. Garber's boss John Johnson (Michael Rispoli) sends Garber home but Ryder only wants to deal with Garber and kills the conductor, demanding Garber be his conduit for his demands.
The Mayor (James Gandolfini) and Deputy Mayor LaSalle (John Benjamin Hickey) give the approval for the $10 million dollar ransom. The Mayor also has his own problems with a well-publicized affair which has hurt his approval ratings. As the police race with the money to the designated drop off spot, SWAT teams close in on the terrorists. A rat plays a part in igniting a gun battle with the crooks and Ramos is shot dead. Ryder kills another passenger and then demands Garber bring the $10 million to the train. Ramos was the only one who knew how to drive the train but Garber also knows how to operate it, having worked his way up the ladder with the Transit Authority.
PELHAM 1,2,3 goes off the rails so to speak in the last act as Garber turns into Superman, leading the crooks out of the subway before separating from them. Garber goes superhero as he confiscates a car and chases the taxi carrying Ryder. A traffic jam forces Ryder to get out of the taxi and Garber and Ryder have their final confrontation on the Manhattan Bridge as police helicopters and officers converge on them.
In this newer PELHAM, the three main characters all have secrets and seek redemption. Garber has been accused of taking a bribe from the Japanese while consulting on which subway trains they should buy. Garber sees apprehending Ryder and his cohorts as a way to regain his integrity and his good standing with his co-workers, even if it means risking his life. The mastermind Ryder's redemption is a bit more twisted. Ryder feels the city of New York owes him after sending him to prison. He's been slighted (although his earlier crime deserved incarceration) and he's looking for financial redemption from the political movers and shakers of Manhattan. I won't reveal his secret but it's a nice twist and makes the hijacking more plausible. The last character who finds redemption in PELHAM 1,2,3 is the Mayor. Beaten down by the media and his own staff for an infidelity (his secret) that's shaken City Hall, the Mayor is the one who figures out Ryder's past life and who his real identity is. How many films do you see the Mayor turn detective?
Director Scott and writer Helgeland obviously hold the original PELHAM in high regard and keep many of the same plot points and scenes from the original in their remake but Scott goes overboard in some of his choices. One scene where a police car with police escort races though the streets of New York to make Ryder's deadline gets multiplied by ten as the car is struck not once but twice by other vehicles and propelled insanely into the air (the two police officers miraculously surviving). Whereas the original had a non-action ending and just good police work, director Scott pulls a TRUE ROMANCE shoot-out for the two lesser known hijackers Bashkim and Emri complete with slow motion blood spurting that just doesn't belong in this film. The filmmakers also try to humanize Garber by giving him a wife (Aunjanue Ellis) and a couple of kids. I preferred not knowing Garber's family history. This new PELHAM does end on a great note as Garber turns down the Mayor's offer for a fancy escort, choosing to take (what else?) the subway home to see his family.
Garber and Ryder are both mirror images of each other, basically good men who succumbed to greed. Garber's greed is not as great as Ryder's or as intense but they are connected by their ethical failures. Actor Denzel Washington enjoys either playing the top dog in films like MALCOLM X (1992) or AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007) or the common man in JOHN Q (2002) or as Garber in PELHAM 1,2,3. John Travolta as the ringleader Ryder has started to become stereotyped as the heavy that Quentin Tarantino resurrected with him brilliantly in PULP FICTION (1994). Travolta's too hyper as Ryder. This PELHAM has too much dialogue between Garber and Ryder on the radio. Yes, they're able to disperse plenty of plot information and each gives away some background about each other but I found their conversations contrived at times.
A nice surprise is James Gandolfini's performance as the Mayor. Known as the tough Tony Soprano from HBO's THE SOPRANOS, Gandolfini softens his voice and wears a nice suit (projecting former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg). His mayor is not a buffoon like in the original but a smart, flawed human being who has the wits to figure out who Ryder really is. John Turturro also plays against type as the calm negotiator Camonetti, assessing and analyzing the situation unfolding.
In the end, I would have to recommend the original THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE over the newer 1,2,3. As slick as the newer Tony Scott version looks and sounds, the original has an almost documentary feel to it with actors who look like real life New Yorkers and subway employees.