Why the original ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’ is better than the Tony Scott remake

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I’m one of those people who likes to pretend that Tony Scott’s atrocious 2009 remake of  Joseph Sargent’s 1974 film of the same name never really happened. Why did they have to remake a film that was perfect? It was totally unnecessary. The original film is one of those films that demonstrate why the 70s was the best decade for Hollywood cinema. It was well-made, exciting suspenseful and interesting characters. It didn’t take itself very seriously yet it managed to not end up as some silly B-movie. It had subtlety, a brilliant sense of humor and everything didn’t have to be spelled out. It had plenty of witty one-liners and also lily-livered Mayor who is stuck in bed with the flu. It begins and ends with a sneeze, each with different consequences and it’s not the Mayor who does the sneezing.

Scott’s version, however, had none of those things. It was one of his weaker movies and was all style over substance as was typical of some of his later works. There actually was some humor but those came in the form of sequences which were unintentionally hilarious, especially those that take place in the third act. And the flashy and epileptic camera work didn’t help either. The original film had two strong actors playing the leads – Walter Matthau playing Lieutenant Zachary Garber and Robert Shaw playing the primary antagonist Benard Ryder, also known as Mr. Blue. Every member of Ryder’s gang is named after a color and everyone wears a mustache. This movie influenced Quentin Tarantino’s idea to name his characters in Reservoir Dogs in a similar fashion. Ryder is played by John Travolta and Garber is played by Denzel Washington in the new version.

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Shaw’s portrayal of Ryder obviously is way better than Travolta’s. The latter’s performance felt like he was trying to be another Nicholas Cage – overacting the shit out of a role that was played with dignity, poise and restrained intensity by Shaw in the original. Shaw’s character is a hijacker, sure, but there was something likable about him. He had some principles and commanded respect. Apart from Matthau and Shaw, there is Martin Balsam, who starred in two of my favorite movies – 12 Angry Men, All the President’s Men – and  Héctor Elizondo among others. Shaw’s Ryder is an ex-mercenary who hijacks the train for a ransom of $1 million and Travolta’s Ryder is a former manager at an equity who was arrested for investment fraud. Matthau and Shaw played these characters in a way that made them look interesting and memorable.

Matthau is very good at playing a curmudgeon and here he once again plays it to perfection. He is also obnoxious and prejudiced – not a very likable fellow compared to the overly sympathetic portrayal of Denzel. Matthau looked like an everyman and Shaw actually looked like a former mercenary who shouldn’t be messed with. And one notable aspect of the original is that every passenger in the train had distinct traits of their own – and one of them happens an undercover cop (again something that influenced Tarantino). If there is one thing that made the 70s thrillers good, it’s the fact that Watergate and Vietnam made a significant impact on how these stories were told and perceived . The city New York was depicted as a messy and chaotic place in many of the films from that time such as Taxi Driver, Across 110th Street, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico etc.

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3 comments

  1. That was a terrific comparison of the two films that made for a most enjoyable read. I too admire the first very much, especially compared with most of the contemporary, conceptualized thrillers like Scott’s disappointing substandard copy. In the first, there was a concerted effort made to make you believe every single character’s motive and personal sincerity in seeing through his/her desired outcome. The remake didn’t seem to care about that. What? Make a lot of money? That’s it? All brought home with a sledgehammer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The original film was a gem. A good example of the quality of the script is that bit where Garber finally sees Inspect Daniels (played by Julius Harris), and that little throwaway line ‘I, uh, thought you’d be shorter’. How to say so much with an economy of words.

    Liked by 1 person

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