Review: Pelham 123

Plot: A New York City subway car is hijacked by an armed crew led by a man (John Travolta), with a grudge against the city. He wants $10 million in one hour or he starts executing hostages, forcing a mild-mannered dispatcher (Denzel Washington), to become his liaison with the authorities, including the city’s disgruntled mayor (James Gandolfini).

Review: Tony Scott’s remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is your typical middle of the road, summer action/thriller. It’s got big stars, a big budget, and just enough swearing and violence to appeal to a slightly older demographic that hasn’t been particularly well-served this summer by a lot of the big tent-pole films. With Tony Scott, behind the lens- you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to get walking into the film, and overall, it’s a fun, if flawed caper flick.

My beef with this film is that it’s yet another remake of a movie that didn’t really need to be remade. The original PELHAM 123, is a top-notch seventies thriller, anchored by two terrific performances from leads Walter Matthau, and Robert Shaw. While I have nothing against Washington or Travolta, the big problem here is that they’re playing exactly to type. Washington has made loads of these films (more often than not with Scott directing), and by now, watching him in a thriller is like watching John Wayne in a western. Matthau, in the original film, was playing against type (he was primarily a comic actor), and was truly an underdog throughout, relying on his wits, rather than his brawn. While some effort has been made to make Washington more of an everyman, he’s so damn iconic that you never doubt for a second that he’s going to save the day, and it’s not a big surprise when he turns into an action hero in the last act.

As for Travolta- if you’ve seen him in BROKEN ARROW or FACE/OFF, you pretty much know what to expect here, with him chewing the scenery, and yelling “MUTHAFUCKA” a lot. This is a huge departure from the original film, as Shaw was for the most part silent, while Travolta seemingly never shuts up. I also thought Travolta looked a little silly in the film, with his handle-bar mustache, and tattoos. I did, however, like the fact that Travolta, in a gutsy move, ditched his hairpiece for the role (something his former FACE/OFF co-star, Nicholas Cage, should try), and seems to be embracing middle-age- which bodes well for future roles.

Of course, being a Tony Scott film, you should go in expecting all kinds of editing tricks, color-filters, wrap-around shots, freeze frames, etc, that Scott is generally known for. I’ve always been a huge fan of Tony’s, and I think his tricks actually make the film a lot more entertaining than it would have been in someone else’s hands. The first hour of the film, is actually rock solid, moving along at a quick clip, but sadly it loses momentum in the second half, before nearly crashing and burning during the over-wrought climax.

Still, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, is a solid enough thriller, although it’s easily one of the lesser Scott/ Washington pairings (better than DEJA VU, but nowhere near as good as CRIMSON TIDE or MAN ON FIRE), and probably won’t be Travolta’s big comeback film, although I wouldn’t count him out. Even if this one doesn’t make it, Travolta will more than likely hit the big time once again, as the guy, along with Sylvester Stallone, is the king of comebacks. Overall, PELHAM 123 is a passable time thriller, but nothing more.

Grade: 6/10

Review: Pelham 123




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.