REVIEW: Pelham 123

Posted on September 21, 2009

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I’m not a great fan of remakes. If the original was any good, I tend to agree with Samuel L Jackson when he was first approached about starring in the remake of Shaft: “what’s wrong with the one we’ve got?”

I remember The Taking of Pelham 123 as a fast-paced thrill of a film. Raymond Shaw was memorable as the clinically cold, calculating criminal, holding a train of hostages for ransom in the New York Underground.
With that original being such a good film, I had to ask, why remake it? Unless you can improve on the original, then why not leave well enough alone? The exception to that rule, to my mind, is when a filmmaker can bring a new dimensino to things without detracting from the original story.

It was with some trepidation that I went to see Pelham 123, the remake starring John Travolta. While I long ago accepted that the mature Travolta can definitely act, part of me still associates him with Saturday Night Fever, or worse, with Grease – bland vomit-inducing. A part of me also still remembers him as Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter (am I really that old?). How was Director Tony Scott going to address things. Was it just going to be a cheap copy? The original story butchered beyond recognition?

Thankfully, my fears were not realised.

Travolta was menacing from the moment he first appears at the start of the film. Kudos to the make-up people who ensured that the tattoo on his neck actually looked properly aged and not just obviously slapped on for the role as is too often the case. Verisimiltude folks!

Whereas Shaw’s portrayal of the villain was a man always in control, even when things were getting away from him, Travolta’s is far wilder. He goes off into rants at the drop of a hat, to the point of foaming at the mouth. Yet before killing people, he tends to apologise for what he is about to do.

It is easy to forget beforehand that the film also stars Denzel Washington who was an excellent counter-point to Travolta’s character. There was nothing particularly stand-out about his performance but then we have been spoiled over the years with solid-to-excellent performances by Washington, film after film. Both Travolta and Washington were credible and believable in their roles, giving that all-important suspension of disbelief by the audience.

A good supporting cast rounded things out, particularly with James Gandolfini as a jaded New Your City Mayor, who cannot wait for his term to end so he can get the hell out of the place.

The film managed to retain all the original crispness of the original but deepened things by a greater exploration of the characters involved. I won’t say that this is better than the original, but Pelham 123 is definitely worth seeing in its own right.

Well done to the original novel’s author, John Godey, and scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland.

This one gets a big thumbs up from me!
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