Opening 24 Sep 2009
It’s just another afternoon at MTA New York City Transit Control Center. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) monitors the huge electronic layout of subways on the move. Suddenly, one dot stops dead on the screen. Former convict and embezzler Ryder (John Travolta), with the help of henchmen, has hijacked a number six subway car on its way to Pelham in the Bronx. He demands ten million dollars within an hour or he will shoot one hostage a minute. Lieutenant Vincent Camonetti (John Turturro) attempts to mediate, but Ryder insists on talking to Garber, who becomes an unhappy but necessary negotiator. The mayor (James Gandolfini), convinced that any other action will lose him votes at the next election, organizes the ransom money. Time is short, the hostages are in despair, special police forces line the subway tunnel. Even if their demands are met, how do the gangsters expect to escape to freedom above ground?
The story is based on a book by John Godey, which was filmed in 1974 and starred Walter Matthau as Garber. Tony Scott, director of this newest version, took the book as his source but never intended to remake the first filmed version. In this he has succeeded. Washington’s Garber is a simple family man trying to do his best under impossible circumstances. John Travolta said that by playing the bad guy he “can be wild, calm, nutty, charming, or whatever I want.” And he is excellent in all of those poses: first likeable, then insane. The underground atmosphere adds to the tense claustrophobia. It was filmed on location, and all 400 people involved took an eight-hour safety training course with the NYC Transit Learning Center, where high-speed subways rushing by on the next track and loose electricity in the “third rail” posed real risks.
The film holds your attention to the final showdown, and you may never board another subway. Real film lovers will rent the 1974 version and compare the differences in aspect and emphasis. Both versions are more than satisfactory if you are looking for a suspenseful thriller. (Becky Tan)