Count me among those who saw the Denzel version before the Matthau version. Yes, I know. Bad. Very, very bad. I could be referring to the fact that I didn't see the originator first (though at least it wasn't the first I'd heard of the film when I saw the remake...), but I'm in fact referring to the heartless, soulless, absolutely boring remake starring Washington and John Travolta. Sure, the original has been remade a couple of times. Sure, it's so much easier to blame it on Tony Scott. But the most recent version is beyond mediocre, a film that I'd never want to watch again, solely due to its inability to latch into me and make me give a damn about anyone. Remake or no, it fails, so hard that I can find the space in my collection to give permanent homes to "classics" like 'Replicant,'' 'Texas Rangers,' and 'Still Waiting...,' but can't bring myself, even at maybe five or six bucks, to sully my proud library with the latest take on hostage taking in subway cars.
When Joseph Sargent made the film in 1974, he made a film that, while far from perfect, had character to it. It had a sense of urgency. A classy ending. A heart, a light sense of humor, good action, and more than enough story to tell to fill the time it spent, regardless of if some side plots were utter wastes of time. This was, and is, a captivating film, one that's believable for its era. And it had Walter Matthau in it. That right there is enough to warrant a blind buy, folks, with so few titles from the classic, classy, charming late actor available in high def.
At one point or another, by any iteration, most of us already know the story. Four men, using code names, highjack a subway car in New York, and demand a large sum of money within the hour or they'll start executing hostages. They execute their plan with extreme precision, working cohesively, without any sense of mercy. The hijacking victims believe these men are capable of doing the deed, and no one, not the old, not the young, man or woman, can deviate from their orders, lest they pay the consequence. As the police and transit authority work with the men and their demands, their attempts to snare the hijackers seem fruitless, their plans so intricately planned in advance. The man of the hour, whose day began leading a group of foreign businessmen through his station, has to use his wit and guile to appease the perps, save the hostages, and maintain order when others are willing to throw away an entire car's worth of lives just for sake of not having congestion come rush hour.
Based on the John Godey novel penned a year earlier, it's obvious some eagle eyed studio exec saw the potential in the story and snatched up the rights immediately. 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' works, on many levels, far more than the ones it fails to measure up with. The introduction to the men with the nefarious plan is superb, dropping us in, not knowing their plans, or who they really are. Their common man appearance, hiding the monsters within, is eery, somewhat creepy, an interesting statement on the evils we're all capable of in the name of greed. Once in motion, they work as such a well oiled machine, it's hard, really, to root against them, despite knowing they're the bad guys. There's no annoying actor here, no over the top performance (remake, ahem), it's easy to want to get to know these men, to try to figure out their agenda.
See, since they're hijacking a vehicle that can't exactly hide, and can only move on a rail, it adds to the suspense, it's simply breathtaking. Everyone knows this, on paper, is one of the dumbest criminal acts ever, and everyone underestimates the four men, realizing their flaw lies in their escape plan. They only hope that it doesn't involve the hostages further. This is where the film's greatest strength lies, as the complex, dubious agenda unfolds. Of course, it'd be hard to really give much of a damn one way or another if it weren't for a strong presence on the opposite end of the moral compass, and that's where Matthau comes in. His character is impossible to dislike, unlike, say, Denzel. He doesn't have a mysterious, unethical past. He's not under investigation. He's a good man, through and through. He's a man who, as portrayed in the film, makes his job his life. He doesn't mention family, nor hobbies, nor even what he'd rather be doing. He'd rather be the hero, wise cracking as he may be. With the committed performance and the interesting clash of personalities, it's hard to not be drawn in, to root for both sides. It's like Hulk Hogan vs The Ultimate Warrior, even with the silly choreography, only with more clothes on.
Sadly, as mentioned earlier, the side plots are where the film fails. The mayor character (Lee Wallace) is a complete waste of time, necessary as it is to have someone approve the ransom demands. We don't need him fleshed out. Who cares if he's sick. Who cares if there's an argument over whether he should pay or not. The end result is already known, as the film really wouldn't have a good ending if we didn't get the hunt that comes after the crime. Since the escape is the mystery, we know it has to be paid. So, even the delivery subplot, with the car accident and traffic congestion, racing against the clock, it's unnecessary and somewhat stupid. If anything, it makes the character of Mr. Blue, the cold hearted, cruel son of a bitch leader of the group, a fantastic villain, less special, less pure evil. When a stupid side plot that is there to just fill a few minutes and move an item from point a to point b hampers the effectiveness of your villain, you have a problem.
Seeing this original film iteration, it only makes the Scott/Washington/Travolta remake that much more insulting, to see the great story they lessened. The changes in story don't work compared to the way they do here. The mood, the suspense, they're just not there like they are here. That film is akin to the tissues that the mayor blows his nose into. Fans of the remake, come get an education in how to make a film work. Those of you, who, like me, saw the wrong version first, it's still not too late!
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' should have been released when the remake hit theaters or home video, but alas, 'twas not to be. Instead, years later, Best Buy (ugh) stores across the nation have it as an exclusive title, for an undisclosed amount of time, as a part of a larger MGM wave where none of the titles have been announced for wide release. Originally among the hardest to find of the wave due to poor stocking levels, this title is now readily available at the retailer, even at a fair price. Shocking, I know.
The disc is a Region A marked BD50, that, like other modern MGM releases, does not feature a main menu, and autoplays just like a vintage Warner Blu-ray disc. At least the audio defaults to the right track!
I didn't go into 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' with high expectations in the video department, for a few reasons. First, the obvious: MGM exclusive titles are either pristine and awe-inspiring, or, you know, the exact opposite, with little leeway between the two options, and second, the age and aesthetic for the film. I won't say that I'm disappointed, not by any means, with the transfer, presented in 1080p in the 2.35:1 frame using an AVC MPEG-4 encode. I actually kinda liked it (hey Mikey, he liked it!), though more than a few moments had me desiring more.
On the bright side, the amount of dirt, scratches, and random debris is about on par for titles I've seen from the studio that are a sixth to an eighth the age, so there's no real heavy distraction there. There's also no weird wobble or shakiness to the picture; it's quite stable and constant. Grain levels, well, they're pretty darn heavy at times, to the point that detail can be obscured, but not once were they scrubbed, wiped, smeared, or otherwise tampered with. I didn't expect too much in terms of picture depth, but I was surprised, even in some of the train car shots, at how layered it appeared; of course, there were more than a few really flat moments, as well, but nowhere near as much as I was prepared for. So...yeah, that's pretty darn good!
On the flip side, I didn't enjoy the amount of noise that I saw, nor did I dig the occasional brightness fluctuation. Shadow detail is the real bitch, as it was frustratingly consistent, in ways that I'm not fond of. Considering how dark some sequences are, this is a big problem. Textures, honestly, with the way the grain is, I didn't see too many that wowed me, but I really did not like the way some objects looked, particularly Matthau's jacket. This one, effectively, is a wash.
The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track provided 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three' really didn't do much for me, not much at all. I'm sure it's pretty darn faithful to the earliest exhibitions of the film, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Some lines randomly spread through the film are drowned out heavily by random train roars that are akin to prolonged periods of white noise. It's rather annoying. I really, really liked the quiet bits in the film, and the non-musical, introspective bits work...especially since there's no weird or awful sounds mucking them up. Enjoy the silence, Depeche Mode said. The lone bit of memorable music in the film, in the opening, was quite shrill, and made me even more thankful for the way this film was designed to let the drama be its own cue. I was about as drawn into this flick as I am to a running garbage disposal...not very, no matter what is dropped in there. Heck, there are times when a garbage disposal chewing down on some unfortunate piece of silverware sounds less annoying.
Lots and lots of extras on this one!
I hate, hate, hate the Tony Scott remake of this film. Hate may not be a strong enough word. My opinion wasn't based on love of the 1974 original, but now having seen the first film iteration of the novel, I can definitely say my views have that much more validity. This first take on the subject matter is a fun, tense, taut little thriller. MGM's Blu-ray release has alright video but fairly bad audio, and no extras other than a short trailer. Fans of this film will definitely be left wanting more, but those who have missed out so far really need to make the trek to Best Buy to pick up this bargain exclusive title. That, or wait it out. Either way, it's definitely worth a look!