Every day, the New York City subways carry over 4.3 million people around town. It's a more or less efficient system, depending on time of day, the weather, the state of the tracks and the train, and whether the passengers comply with the rules. Trains are delayed for logistical reasons, signal malfunctions, investigations in stations, and various other reasons. I ride the subway nearly every day, and have for the last four years.
What rarely happens—and what sounds completely terrifying to subway riders—is a hijacking. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3—an agile and tense update of the 1974 classic—plays on just that idea.
On an ordinary Manhattan day, just before 2:13 p.m., a hijacker who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta), along with his band of surly companions, boards the Pelham-bound train number 123 (the 6 train, for those in the know), stops it between stations just above 42nd Street, decouples the first car from the rest of the train and takes the passengers in the first car hostage. He radios into the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) headquarters and demands ten million dollars from the mayor within an hour, or he'll shoot the hostages one by one.
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is sitting on the desk that controls that train line, and he receives the call. As he struggles to communicate with Ryder and preserve the lives of the hostages, facts about both men's lives begin to emerge—and the whole city gets involved in the conflict.
It's a workhorse cast—Travolta is a maniacally frightening villain, and James Gandolfini's turn as the mayor proves he probably has a lengthy comic career in front of him—and they are aptly directed by Scott, as they throw off potentially overdramatic lines and moments with a realistic nonchalance. The film begins to lose steam by the end but never falls apart, and for the most part, the script is funny, dramatic, and wound so tight that you might have some white knuckles when you leave.
What's brilliant about Pelham is that it completely avoids the typical stereotype of New York as the cold, dirty, gritty rat's nest of Scorcese's era—or, alternately, as the sleek rom-com world populated by pretty people. Instead, it captures accurately and with some humor those New Yorkers who live neither glamorous nor destitute lives—in short, a whole lot of people. From locations to trains to the transit mumbo-jumbo, this film is accurate to all but the last note: the stock market averages that flash across various screens are comically high in a post-recession town. (Obviously, Pelham was shot before September 2008.)
I'm not sure whether the humor will play quite as uproariously to audiences outside of New York, but the theatre I was in reverberated with laughter. These jokes are funny, because they're true, though they're split between humor with wide appeal and more Big Apple "insider" fare.
The film also captures a town in which people are used to inconvenience. The train stops on the tracks, and everyone sighs, but rarely do people get nervous. Catastrophes happen and people still manage to laugh, roll their eyes, or just not even notice, because inconvenience is a way of life in New York City—and which makes Pelham's blend of suspense, action, and comedy spot-on.
Thankfully, Pelham's themes resonate no matter where you live. The film's snappy, stylized opening sequence and breakneck pace belie the monumental questions at play here, such as: Who is innocent? Who is guilty? Are our lives governed by chance, or fate? And who among us deserves death and life?
These are questions that even Christian theologians find difficult to answer: we are all guilty and deserving of death, but yet, it is not for humans to decide who should die for their sins, and when. Or is it? Arguments over abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and war confront these issues every day.
The dilemma is summed up in one of the film's penetrating radio-mediated interchanges. Garber begins to suspect from Ryder's comments that he is Catholic, and reminds him that a good Catholic would know that he has a trainload of innocents who shouldn't die.
"A good Catholic knows no one is innocent," Ryder replies.
Also threading through the story is the question of wrongdoing—because as the day wears on, it's clear that nobody involved in this experience is free of guilt. Can something—fate or God or chance—direct us? Are the choices we make each day a result of some karmic scale-balancing, or is there some other force at work?
It does teeter a little bit on heavy-handed moralizing in some spots, but in the end, Pelham presents an ultimately hopeful view of human nature—and a view that is consistent with Christian theology. Men and women are inclined toward wrongdoing, toward taking the easy way toward pleasure, power, and wealth. But God's grace keeps the world together, and enables civil servants—even those who are not always paragons of morality—to do justice and love mercy.
As they fly in a helicopter over the gold-bathed Manhattan skyline at sunset, the hostage negotiator leans over to Garber and remarks that its beauty reminds him what he's fighting to preserve. Ultimately, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 reminds us that human life is precious and worth preserving—and all in a smart summer blockbuster.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Ryder tells the train's conductor that the reason she was put on this earth was to take care of the people on the train. Later, he asks Garber, "You don't think this is fate?" What do you think? How much of our lives are governed by chance occurrences? How much is governed by fate—or God's sovereignty?
- What do you think about Ryder's assertion that "we all owe God one death?" What about Garber's reply? What does God expect of us?
- How has technology increased our ability to communicate with one another—like the boy with his laptop, or the conversations that Garber and Ryder have over the radio? What deficiencies do technologically mediated conversations entail? What good can technology bring to difficult situations?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is rated R for violence and pervasive language. The violence is graphic at times—gunshots and blood. A teenage girl briefly starts to remove her top (bra underneath) for her boyfriend over a webcam. The pervasive bad language includes lots of f-bombs. There's discussion of a woman who models jeans and other posterior shots.
Photos © Columbia Pictures
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