RECAP: The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009): Tony Scott

Jay-Z’s acclaimed song “99 Problems” booms over visuals of New York City. As the city flits about on a normal afternoon, a defanged MTA employee sits at the Rail Control Center directing traffic along the dozens of lines snaking beneath the city. One of those lines is about to get shut down.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A disgraced MTA official negotiates with a disgruntled New Yorker after the latter seizes a local subway car, holding its passengers hostage until a ransom is paid. 

Hero (5/10)

MTA employee Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a man too qualified for his job. He begins his regular work day in the role of dispatcher, knocked down to that position while he’s under investigation for bribery, a fact we don’t learn for a while but becomes important. He’s about to have his qualifications meet a match in Ryder (John Travolta) a native New Yorker who’s about to involve Garber in New York’s biggest hostage negotiation in years.

As Garber’s day unfolds, an afternoon train bound for Pelham and starting its journey at 1:23 PM is held up by a quartet of bad guys led by the mysterious Ryder. The train, called Pelham 123, journeys south beneath Manhattan until Ryder seizes the train, decouples all but the lead car, and parks the car at a rise on the tracks.

Garber contacts Pelham 123 first because it’s his job. He wants to know why the train stopped. It’s not long before he learns who’s behind the stoppage. Garber gets sucked into Ryder’s plans by virtue of being easy to talk to. He also has a great voice, as Ryder mentions. Garber proves to be an expert negotiator. He engages Ryder, speaks at his level, converses well, and deflects from upcoming time limits.

Back in the day, Garber was charged with recommending new train, many of them international, designs to the MTA board for selection. He did not have voting power. The Japanese contingent had designed the superior train, and Garber recommended it for selection. He also accepted a $30,000 bribe from the Japanese, which he sunk into his children’s college fund.

This act of bribery, which Garber was fighting at the time, knocked him down to train dispatcher for the day. This idea angers Ryder, who believes Garber is a good man, the kind of guy who helps the city run. And for what? To get knocked down a peg.

Garber is early dismissed from talking to Ryder, but Ryder demands to talk to him, so he’s forced to return. He’s later forced to deliver the $10,000,000 to Ryder by himself. The opposing men meet in the third act and further enmesh each other in their lives.

After meeting, Ryder, his cronies, and Garber leave the hostages and the train to make an escape on foot. Garber elevates himself to a Hero when he chooses to pursue the three surviving hijackers on his own, unable to contact the police about the men’s whereabouts. He’s a man caught in a bad situation that’s above his pay grade, but he delivers results. He’s good enough that we believe he might have has some police training in the old days, but such a fact is never mentioned not insinuated.

Villain (6/10)

Ryder, with a “Y”, is the call name of a disgraced Wall Street trader-turned-hijacker. Ryder’s day starts, well, we don’t know how it starts. But Ryder did. He’s a man who claims to know exactly how his day was going to go when he put on his socks that morning.

That afternoon he’s holding 19 hostages inside a train car parked somewhere beneath Manhattan and demanding $10,000,000.01 in exchange for the lives of those hostages. He wants that money in cash and delivered within an hour.

Much of the movie shows Garber and Ryder talking to each other, each learning a bit more about the other in an effort to gain an advantage. Garber wants to help the passengers survive while Ryder wants money, or so he says.

The interplay between the two antogonists helps make Pelham an interesting movie. These guys chat over radio for a long time, and making their conversation compelling is a challenge, but Tony Scott and company make it work.

Partly the audience needs information about the villain to help learn what kind of person would do this, and also to help the good guys parse out who their villain is.

Ryder wears a single crucifix earring. He talks plenty about innocence and guilt in a Catholic sense. He believes he’s a man who “fed [the city] breakfast” each morning. He’s the man “that’s gonna rock the city” today, which he does.

Ryder is a violent man. He kills Jerry, the motorman and friend of many at the MTA, and claims that New York, “the biggest rathole in the world,” killed Jerry. He later kills a hostage with pleasure, just like he promised he would, and blames it on the woman the man took the fall for. Ryder is excellent at casting blame.

Ryder gives away many clues about his identity. He asks the going rate for a hostage in New York City and then offers one. What is 526315.79 X 19? Turns out it’s 10,000,000.01. That the amount of cash he wants for the hostages, the one cent being a broker fee. So we have a money guy.

He talks about commodities, and he knows that $10 million is the limit that the city’s mayor can withdraw from the Federal Reserve at any one time. He knows markets at a high level. We also learn that he took an ass model to Iceland for a vacation. But he considers himself a working class hero.

He knows money, but he’s very angry at the city. Turns out he was convicted of embezzling or something, and somehow squirreled away $2 million. That cash he invested in gold recently. And, in the wake of a potential terrorist attack on New York City’s subway system, which Ryder is currently orchestrating in the middle of a trading day, stocks, futures, commodities, and more are tanking.

Bad for New York. You know what’s not tanking? Gold. Gold is shooting up 890% today. If someone had foreknowledge of gold skyrocketing in value in less than an hour…that fucker would be rich as God! What if, and bear with me while I think this through, a man had $2 million invested into gold on such a day. What would that be worth later in the day? Well (and don’t do the math because I can’t make sense of the magic here), what’s x(y)? It’s about $307 million. Good investment.

And that is the totality of Ryder’s plan. His escape plan was not good. Once Ryder gets his money and reaches street level he hails a cab and bolts for…somewhere. He doesn’t state where he was trying to go.

John Travolta continues a great career playing villains. His character is angry, and it shows, but Travolta knows how to toe the line while peeking over it, not technically crossing it, but making you feel as if he is.

Action/Effects (0/10)

More thriller than action flick, Pelham saves the gunfire for the finale, and it delivers plenty of it. Huge amounts of squibs are used on the two henchmen without lines, as if they asked for their characters die in such a manner.

Sidekicks (6/8)

I really liked John Turturro as police hostage negotiator Camonetti. This guy is solid and grounded, not fazed AT ALL by the current situation unfolding on a Manhattan subway car. Camonetti arrives very early in the proceedings, perhaps within 10 minutes. He immediately picks up on Garber being disliked by his colleagues though also a capable operator. That leads him to call Garber an “unknown variable.”

Camonetti learns about the bribery investigation, and he asks if Garber would allow a search of his apartment. Garber could be in on the deal, and Camonetti wants to clear him quickly, to know if he can trust him. Before learning the results of the search he decides to trust him anyway, because Ryder is killing passengers when forced to speak to people who are not Garber.

Turturro came to play.

Camonetti gives Garber a few pep talks during the movie. He tells him that hostage negotiation is like being a rodeo clown. The villain is the bull, and the clown’s job is to distract and deflect.

Camonetti doesn’t recommend the mayor (James Gandolfini) speak to Ryder, and that proves to be the correct call. Speaking with the mayor nearly drives Ryder insane.

Later, Camonetti and Garber ride in a helicopter above the city. Garber’s nervous, about to deliver the cash to the hijackers. Camonetti tells about the last time he negotiated, and that he got the hostages out alive and the captor did not survive. He’s calm about it, not proud nor ashamed. And as he looks over the city he tells Garber that it reminds him what he’s fighting for. Good pep talk.

Henchmen (2/8)

Luis Guzman is Phil Ramos. Turns out he was a motorman who did time, where he met Ryder and the two hatched their plan. Ramos is accidentally killed by a sniper when a rat crawled up his leg. It’s a testament to the sniper’s skill that a rat could make him accidentally shoot a man in the head from 100 yards.

The other two henchmen have names and tough faces and guns, but they are as expendable fodder as fodder gets. I don’t know if they have lines. They both get blasted to death on the Manhattan’s street.

However, one of them was actually in prison. This Albanian guy did real time in the real slammer, and some producer found him and he ended up in the movie, also getting his actor cousin to be in it. Actors are not supposed to be scarier than their characters, but these guys are.

Stunts (2/6)

Probably the most expensive sequence in The Taking of Pelham 1233 occurs after the police acquire the $10 million in cash and are tasked with speeding it from the Federal Reserve to the nearest subway station.

One police cruiser races across Manhattan behind a phalanx of police bikes. Sirens wail and intersections are blocked off in the manner that will enrage any New Yorker no matter the reason.

If you saw the original movie, or if you know what to expect from hostage dramas, you know that the money car will fail to reach its destination on time. That’s exactly what happens. An ambulance, also feeling free to ignore street signs and blockades, crashes into the money car, flipping it, spectacularly, over a bridge and onto the street one level below.

Gaze upon the blood packet work.

The police officers survive long enough to pass the duffel bags on to the motorcyclists for prompt delivery.

I’m surprised these kinds of crashes don’t occur more often in Manhattan (maybe they do?). At any moment there must be dozens of emergency vehicles whizzing along the streets to different accidents, and they’re ignoring red lights and such. Manhattan is so densely packed that collisions seem likely, if not necessary.

We’re treated to overheads of the train car hurtling toward Coney Island above ground. That must have been fun to drive that car.

Climax (3/6)

Garber delivers the cash, walking it from the nearest station to the parked car, and Ryder and his two living henchmen depart the train with it, each carrying a duffel bag full of cash. They walk across active train tracks to the abandoned Roosevelt station beneath the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. They have rigged some metallic object on the train’s throttle to send it hurtling toward the end of the track with the hostages still on board and to fool the police into thinking they are too.

Meanwhile, trains continue to run beneath the city. The bad guys and Garber must dodge the moving trains while trying to reach the abandoned Roosevelt station.

Garber uses one of the moving trains to separate him from his captors. He also has a gun that the police planted in one of the bags. Garber tries to call his colleagues using a landline on the track, but it doesn’t work. He follows the bad guys, but not close enough to see them or get into a shootout. He knows the tracks and knows where they are going.

Here’s part of the plan I didn’t understand. Ryder parts ways with the other two guys in the hotel lobby with a simple handshake. No histrionics or double crosses necessary. Ryder enters a cab carrying his duffel. This bag contains at most $2,500,000. (I believe there were four bags delivered.) We learn pretty soon that Ryder’s actions during the day earned him more than $307 million. Why bother with the duffel at all? It would only slow him down, and the cash surely would be traceable and therefore unusable. It’s not even 1% of the amount of money he made today.

Nevertheless Ryder enters a cab while the other two guys are immediately surrounded by cops. They decide to go suicide by cop, and are plugged with hundreds of rounds from dozens of police officers. That’s what they call an NYPD Arrest. I dunno if they do, but they might. Good blood packet work on these two killers.

Garber finds the surface and luckily spots Ryder as he enters the cab. Garber, using his gun, carjacks an HVAC truck with an air conditioner in back and pursues like he’s an FBI agent.

Denzel doing some good running.

The two main characters reach the George Washington Bridge to find it clogged with traffic. Another curious choice by Ryder. Doesn’t he know that the GW Bridge is the most trafficked in the world? I’m starting to think he wanted to be caught.

Ryder ditches the cab and flees on foot, still dragging the wheeled duffel behind him. A pedestrian walkway flanks the bridge’s road, and that’s where Garber spots Ryder.

Garber approaches the smirking lunatic worth nine figures. They have a chat. Ryder reminds Garber that he saved is life earlier today. I’m not sure what he’s talking about. But Garber gets it. “Now you have to give me something back,” Ryder says.

Garber waves over the cops sprinting toward them. Ryder says that he will count down, and when he reaches the end he’ll kill Garber. The clock ticks. We know he means it; he did it before.

Garber doesn’t hesitate. He puts a slug in Ryder’s chest. “You’re my goddamn hero,” Ryder says, confirming that, yes, he did plan to die today. One wonders what he planned to do with all his money.

Garber is offered a ride home from the mayor, but he’s a train man, and he rides that home. Besides, he says, he’ll get home faster that way. Garber, as he promised his wife, brings home a carton of milk.

Jokes (0/4)

The funniest part of the movie occurred when a rat crawled up the pants leg of a supine sniper, causing the sniper to fire his rifle and kill one of the captors.

Setting (2/4)

The production team filmed much of The Taking of Pelham 123 on actual subway tracks beneath the city. It’s dirty and dark down there, and that shows on screen. There’s also a rat sighting (no pizza), and that rat indirectly kills one of the characters. Rats really will kill New York residents.

Tony Scott likens the real MTA center to NASA. The place looks it. A huge digital map stretches dozens of yards across a wall at the command center in Midtown. Glass walls make the office feel open and elegant, not unlike how I imagine a hedge fund’s headquarters.

Commentary (2/2)

The Taking of Pelham 123 has some things to say about New York. Mayors might get the glory, but its the unknowns that make the city work. People like Garber, a man trying to look out for himself and his family. He takes a bribe, but it did not influence his decision. Hmm. Interesting take. Should we believe Garber? He lied about being innocent, or he convinced himself that his action was innocent.

The mayor had the intellectual break in the case of Ryder’s identity.

Ryder believes himself on the same level as Garber, despite being several economic classes above Garber. He was so big and corrupt that the mayor made his case a campaign issue. Made Ryder angry and vengeful. Perhaps the movie is about how people delude themselves and their stations in life.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

The movie is mostly clean, although it’s unclear why Ryder loves ethnic stereotypes so much. He’s a bad guy with bad attitudes, so by association ethnic stereotyping is bad.


  • Garber has the dress style of Dwight Shrute.
  • If you want a case for the dumbing of America, here’s your movie (title). The original movie spells out the numbers of the train, while the 2009 version goes with the digits.
  • In the original movie Garber’s character gives Japanese subway officials a tour of the MTA. In the remake the Japanese are selling trains to the MTA.

Summary (28/68): 41%

Tony Scott updates The Taking of Pelham 123 with better actors, more gun violence, and a grungier city. Aside from that, there’s nothing to separate the two movies beside three decades. The editing is faster, a Tony Scott trademark, and Garber still kills the bad guy (or he almost does in the original the bad guy dies by suicide).