The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 reinvents 1974 thriller

May 17, 2009
John Travolta (in photo) plays a terrorist who hijacks a New York subway car in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

To hear director Tony Scott explain it, his updating of the hostage drama The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a total "reinvention" of the 1974 thriller widely considered one of the decade's classic films.

Who better to replace Walter Matthau's wisecracking Transit Police lieutenant than the baronial Denzel Washington? (Except now, the character's a disgraced subway dispatcher.) John Travolta chews scenery in the lead terrorist part that an icy Robert Shaw inhabits in the original. And James Gandolfini puts some psychic distance between himself and Tony Soprano portraying the new movie's beleaguered mayor.

Then there's the new film's showcasing of contemporary technologies: live-blogging, webcams and online commodity trading in pursuit of a criminal vendetta. And, of course, terrorist dramas mean something totally different in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Still, there are certain unmistakable consistencies that won't be lost on fans of the first Pelham. Scott's reimagining follows hijackers who overtake a New York subway car, demanding ransom and shooting hostages. And as with the original, you see law enforcement efforts to stop them vis a vis city bureaucracy and urban ennui. As well, there's a third-act plot twist involving the override of the subway train's "dead-man's switch"—a fail-safe intended to ensure a driver is always at the controls.

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Yet, for classic film lovers, the fundamental question lingers: Why "reinvent" a beloved film in the first place?

Before answering, Scott put his feet up on a garage door-sized table at the West Hollywood office of his commercial and video production company, leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. With that, he began explaining—not justifying—what led him to the project.

"Brian Helgeland, the writer, came to me two years ago and said he was going to reinvent it, put a spin on it," he said. "He always comes up with something that inspires me."

In contrast to many of Scott's high-octane, explosion-and-shootout-a-minute films such as Man on Fire and Domino, Pelham's two leads verbally spar over the phone for more than two-thirds of the movie. "That was a big challenge for me," Scott admitted.

Turns out Washington and Travolta resisted meeting each other until near the end of filming to help stoke aggression between their characters, respectively, a valiant but flawed hero and a rage-fueled homicidal maniac.

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"That was Denzel's idea," Scott said. "A dynamic tension came out of that where you can see both guys springboard off each other on the phone. They were on separate sides of the studio for the entire shoot."

Opening soon across the Philippines, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is distributed by Columbia Pictures, local office of Sony Pictures Releasing International.

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John Travolta (in photo) plays a terrorist who hijacks a New York subway car in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.
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