Blu-ray Review: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

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Like Mifune was to Kurosawa, Rowlands was to Cassavetes, and De Niro and Di Caprio are to Scorsese, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington is to the brothers Scott. Although it’s Russell Crowe whom we usually associate with Ridley Scott and the smiling “need for speed” testosterone fueled early Tom Cruise fare of Top Gun and Days of Thunder that seem synonymous with Tony Scott, Denzel Washington has been cast in a number of challenging roles by the two British-born directors.

A sampling of these roles for Washington consist, of course of going toe-to-toe with Ridley and Russell in his dominant work American Gangster or becoming Tony’s ultimate intellectual sparring partner to Gene Hackman in the chess like submarine film Crimson Tide. Drawn to their passionate work ethic, Denzel Washington himself acknowledged the reason they re-team so often in the production notes for his fourth collaboration with Tony Scott via the Columbia Pictures/MGM release of The Taking of Pelham 123, explaining that since, “Tony works harder than anybody... he has a good heart... so whenever he calls, I come running.”

And while running is exactly what he ends up doing very late into this film, written by Oscar winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), for a majority of Pelham, he’s essentially stationary, quite unlike the Scott directed, Helgeland penned Man on Fire or Scott’s other recent Washington work, Déjà Vu.

Tony Scott’s most wholly satisfying and richly complex character driven action film in several years is also--as it turns out--the best popcorn movie of the summer that nobody saw. For, instead of flubbed franchise flicks, subpar superheroes or cinematic spins on Saturday morning cartoons, The Taking of Pelham 123 throws you in your subway seat and gives you nothing to grab onto. Within moments, you’re jerked to-and-fro quickly in sync with our “motorman” Tony Scott and the guy who loves to ride those breaks, editor Chris Lebenzon who employs a rhythmic Requiem for a Dream like "hustle and flow" of cuts.

Yet, I will admit that at first, I feared the two were such slaves to the rhythm that like Tony Scott's Keira Knightley bounty hunter vehicle Domino, it was going to dance as fast as it could until it tripped to acid (literally as Domino did in a bizarre sequence). Luckily
it moves from an irregular heartbeat to a simply quickened one, once Lebenzon established Scott’s vision to make Pelham a piece of “Subterranean” Homesick “Steroids” by using the two "s" words that T.S. references in one of the Blu-ray's informative extras.

ased on John Godey’s novel which was adapted into a 1974 film with Walter Matthau, Helgeland decided he didn't want to follow the same destination of the earlier movie in a simple and pointless remake since all involved thoroughly appreciated the original. No, instead he pulled out all the stops of Pelham and created an entirely new map to reroute this train for 2009. He did so complete with a character who wasn't around more than thirty years ago in the form of John Turturro's police hostage negotiator and also by making his screenplay incredibly reflective of our post-9/11 society.

Multilayered, taut, thought-provoking and sharp, Helgeland uses the framework of a real-time action thriller to address (both covertly and overtly) life in these United States. The ambiance of Pelham mirrors ours wherein the bedroom doors of politicians have been flung open, anyone with a fast internet connection can create their own newsroom, and the gray areas between black and white are growing wider than ever given the current economic climate.

Although on the surface, the idea of watching two of our most charismatic American movie stars-- Denzel Washington as the good guy and John Travolta as the bad guy-- may seem a bit familiar, thankfully it was anything but. And initially, I feared it was going to be a cross between Washington in Inside Man and Travolta in Face/Off or Broken Arrow, yet Helgeland managed to keep the characters evolving in unexpected ways, even when they must use semi-cliched good guy/bad guy movie speak.

As an homage to Matthau in the original, Washington's character is renamed as he portrays Walter Garber, a New York transit dispatcher who discovers John Travolta's ruthless "Ryder" has decoupled a train and is holding nineteen people hostage for the price of ten million dollars to be delivered in an hour. Coming right after a discussion with a friend about terrific against-type casting such as pitting Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor against one another in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream and how that film benefited from such a bold choice, I confess that I found myself wanting to switch around several roles once the plot and the decoupled train rolled away.

However, I was deeply impressed that it not only moved past the point of predictability with interesting characterization along with some genuine risks like giving James Gandolfini a role as the city's mayor. Furthermore, because it did make bold choices like relishing in Travolta's obvious joy in cutting loose as a calculating killer and making Luis Guzman one of his morally waffling accomplices, the authenticity was there from the start. And as screenwriter Helgeland noted, since he enjoyed introducing us to individuals we met on the fly, in real time and in the midst of whatever they happened to be doing, feeling a connection of who these men were definitely made it more effective for audiences.

Similarly, because the ensemble is so strong and as a film buff it's fun to connect the actors in your head when you realize just how many have worked alongside one another before, it makes the Sony Blu-ray exclusive feature Movie IQ even more irresistible. Similar to the Fox related IMDb feature included on their Wolverine disc, Sony's Movie IQ reveals details about the film itself such as music etc. and also-- via an internet connected Blu-ray player-- to ensure the film consistently stays up to date. Closing and opening a window as you watch to control the interruptions, it allows you to discover the filmographies and biographies of all involved to connect the Coen Brothers films, Spike Lee Joints, or other titles and individuals they have in common.

While I haven't seen the original film, which undoubtedly worked to my advantage since I had nothing with which to compare it, if you have an interest in '70s cinema, you'll find you'll begin moving past modern comparisons like Speed or
Inside Man given a French Connection style car chase and a few Dog Day Afternoon moments. Similar to a weakness of Speed, unfortunately we don't really get a chance to know our passengers aside from a few generic or pertinent issues like "young man with wireless internet enabled laptop," the little kid, etc. On the other hand, reminiscent of one of the strengths of Speed, we begin to piece together more information about our villain and hero as they converse.

Of course, it is a Tony Scott film and his signature is undoubtedly spectacular action sequences along with an unrelenting desire to push further and venture into more extreme areas as Denzel Washington is just inches away from real moving trains. Thus it won't come as a surprise when I share that his trademark multiple-camera employed expertly choreographed scenes rivet from the start and you do feel like you're hijacked by the adrenaline fueled danger as well.

However, in a work that is far more intelligent than Domino which sacrificed substance for style and fetishistic violence, we're just as enthralled by the sight of the two men trading banter on the radio while everyone around them prepares to act as we are with a car crash or standoff. This difference in utilizing a solid foundation of a terrific screenplay sets Scott's film apart from some of his "need for speed" predecessors.

Fortunately it's enhanced by the razor sharp clarity of a Blu-ray that never jumps the track in a theatrical level presentation of crisp camerawork cut to the rhythm Scott dances best to as a director with a rich, balanced audio track. Likewise, the 2-disc Blu-ray set includes the film as a digital copy and BD-Live features that offer you the chance to analyze just why you were so taken by Pelham.

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