The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
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What did you expect your day to be like when you woke up this morning?
Maybe you thought you'd get some coffee and go to work, then punch a clock, answer some calls, maybe spill your lunch on your shirt, punch the clock again, then go home to the wife and kids to start the whole thing over again tomorrow? That's what New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber was probably thinking.
But today he's wrong.
A mastermind felon named Ryder has just been released from prison. And he has an entirely different plan for Garber's day. Actually, he has plans for the whole city—starting with the 19 hostages he and his three thuggish partners seize on subway train Pelham 1 2 3.
All he wants, Ryder claims, is $10 million dollars, delivered in one hour ... or he'll start killing people. As chance would have it, Walter Garber is the dispatcher Ryder first contacts from the hijacked train.
Garber knows he's out of his depth, and a professional hostage negotiator is soon brought in. It even looks as if Garber's workday might end a bit early, given the nature of the crisis.
Ryder, however, likes Garber. And having quickly developed what he considers a kind of cosmic connection with the "average Joe" dispatcher, the hijacker demands that Garber stay. It's "fate" that's brought them together, he says.
Minute by minute, Ryder's trust in Garber grows, and he unconsciously shares key pieces of information regarding his identity. Meanwhile, the police scramble to figure out who the hijacker really is—and how to thwart his plans and save the hostages aboard Pelham 1 2 3.
But the hour is ticking away. And Ryder charges a hefty late fee of one dead hostage for every minute his demands aren't met.
[Note: The following sections include spoilers.]
When Ryder makes an offer—the mayor in return for the hostages—the mayor declines. That's not positive. But the mayor's indifference to his constituents' welfare highlights Garber's sacrificial spirit. In contrast to the mayor, the dispatcher goes above and beyond the call of duty and agrees to carry the ransom to Ryder personally in exchange for the hostages.
Ryder callously blames others for his need to commit egregious crimes, but Garber takes responsibility for his mistakes. He also loves his family and wants to provide for them. When he faces the prospect of death, he tells his wife over the phone to cheer on their daughter at her track meet the next day ... just in case. Garber's wife accepts the danger her husband has chosen. Trying to act as if nothing catastrophic is happening, she "orders" him to do what he has to do, but to come home safely with a gallon of milk.
A man volunteers to take the place of a woman whom Ryder is about to kill.
Ryder wears a cross-shaped earring, and he tells a female subway conductor that God put her on earth to usher some passengers to safety. When talking to Garber, Ryder mentions that the subway car reminds him of a confessional. He also says a good Catholic knows that no one is innocent because of the doctrine of original sin.
Accordingly, Ryder paraphrases Shakespeare by saying, "We all owe God a death," presumably for our guilt on earth. Garber counters, saying we owe Him a life. All this God talk prompts the hijacker to quip sarcastically about having a sudden urge to pray. A SWAT team sniper prays that he can be the one to take Ryder down.
Several female subway passengers wear low-cut shirts. A young woman seductively pulls down her shirt to expose her bra and bare stomach to her boyfriend who is watching online. A female passenger sneaks a furtive peek as a man pulls down his fly and attempts to urinate out of an open subway car door. The mayor is accused of adultery. Another man jokes that Ryder must have slept with his ex-wife. Ryder fondly recalls taking a voluptuous model on a romantic trip.
To hijack the train, Ryder bloodies the motorman's nose and holds him at gunpoint. He sticks a gun in several other hostages' backs as well. As the hijacking grows more violent, Ryder and his lackeys shoot police officers, passengers and transit workers. The camera captures several of these shootings in graphic detail as multiple bullets pierce limbs and torsos. Several people get shot and killed at point-blank range. And when a rat bites a police sniper's ankle, he accidentally shoots one of Ryder's henchmen in the head, with spectacularly gruesome results. In addition, several victims' faces get pummeled brutally by the bad guys' fists.
Back on New York City's streets, police cars race through traffic, causing several dramatic accidents. A motorcycle officer crashes into the hood of a car and gets tossed over its roof. A squad car careens off an overpass and tumbles into oncoming traffic below. Garber appropriates a passerby's vehicle (albeit apologetically) and drives recklessly, endangering civilians around him. A runaway subway car hurtles down the tracks with terrified passengers on board.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to a hundred f-words and 20 s-words. God's name is misused about 10 times (five of those paired with "d--n"), and Christ's name is used in vain twice. We hear several uses each of "a--," "b--ch," "d--n" and "h---." Characters also blurt out crude slang for male and female body parts.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Garber jokes that he'll buy someone a beer if that person can figure out why a train is stopped. There's a brief reference to piña coladas. A former subway motorman is said to have been impaired by cough syrup, which resulted in the deaths of several people in an accident.
Other Negative Elements
Garber, a former assistant chief transit officer, had been accused of taking a bribe that revolved around which model of subway car the city would purchase next. So when the shady deal began to emerge, Garber was demoted to dispatcher and is still under investigation as the movie begins. Garber vehemently denies the accusation. But Ryder forces a confession out of him in return for a hostage's life, and Garber reluctantly admits that he used the money to pay for his kids' tuition. His rationalization was that he had already decided to choose the company that offered the bribe, hence the under-the-table money didn't actually influence the outcome of the contract.
A little boy urinates out of a subway car. A grown man attempts to do the same (in a shadowy scene) but is too nervous to do so. Ryder reminisces about watching a dog defecate and run simultaneously, and laughs about how it inspired him to get over his shyness when using the toilet in prison. Marriage is mockingly described as inferior to love. We hear an ethnic slur.
At the screening of Pelham 1 2 3 I attended, the elevator took approximately six hours to reach the theater level. Moviegoers gathered around its doors to wait after the show. Naturally, many people were talking about the film we'd all just watched.
"That's the best movie I've seen in ages," one woman gushed to her friend (and thus to the whole group). "Powerful. Action. A great plot. And I love it when people are redeemed." Two or three others nodded in agreement.
I, however, remained a bit more skeptical, especially when it came to what the movie had to say about redemption.
Garber's life seems overshadowed by his crime of accepting the bribe. Because of this, he feels his colleagues' disdain and distrust, and the embarrassment of being demoted to a lowly dispatcher—especially after having worked his way up through the ranks. Self-confidence has been replaced by timidity, insecurity and an almost palpable sense of shame. So when he tries to redeem himself through his heroic actions, we cheer.
But are his intentions solely to save the hostages or to atone for himself, too? Even Ryder, who threatens Garber's life in the subway car, laughingly says, "You thought you'd be redeemed, didn't you?" What does redemption look like—what should it look like—especially when the main character is so desperately in need of it? And how do we respond to demonstrably wicked people who co-opt confused God-talk and spiritual sounding ideas to justify their depravity?
These are some of questions The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 raises. They're good questions. And because movie-watching is such a subjective experience, they could probably be answered in different ways.
But there's a significant fly in the would-be conversation-starter ointment here. A story that could have been a thought-provoking actioner gets utterly derailed by the volume of visceral violence on the tracks—bullets, blood, brains, executions—not to mention a subway car full of harsh profanity.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Denzel Washington as Walter Garber; John Travolta as Ryder; James Gandolfini as The Mayor; John Turturro as Lt. Camonetti
June 12, 2009
November 3, 2009