The reel world: Pelham rocks, but suspend your disbelief

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Monday, June 15, 2009

By Matt Van Hattem

Senior Editor


Like lots of other subway fans, I went to the movies this weekend and saw “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” I’m a big fan of the original 1974 movie, so I had more than a bit of skepticism walking into the theater.


I came out satisfied enough, I suppose. The new movie stands on its own, although I’ll take the smarmy dialogue of the original over the remake’s psychological probings into the characters.


Yes, there is a lot of implausibility, the worst examples of which are well-addressed by Joe Calisi in our Trains newsletter. But if you suspend your disbelief, and just want to go see a movie with a compelling story and lots of railroad atmosphere, you won’t be disappointed.


Rather than offer a comprehensive review or a scene-by-scene nitpick, here are some general observations, and I’d be curious to hear some of yours.


1. The main character loves trains. Denzel Washington plays a New York City Transit subway dispatcher who loves the subways and understands the important role they play in big cities. Directing these trains is more than just a job to him (unlike his supervisor, who exhibits an attitude of “I’m here for the paycheck,” and then gets every situation wrong).  This is something I liked a lot, and something not found in the original.


There are various snippets of dialogue that support the main character’s passion for the subway, including an argument over who builds better trains (the Japanese or Canadians), and an affirmation of a great New York truth: if you want to get anywhere fast, forget the streets and take the train.


My favorite scene in the whole movie comes near the end, when Denzel’s Washington’s train dispatcher rides the subway home after work. Even after his harrowing day dealing with a subway hijacking, he sits on the train, his body angled so he can look out the window behind him, watching the train’s progress down the line. A flash of a smile appears when another train passes him going the other way.


It’s a moment I can relate to—having sat in a similar position on any number of subway seats, taking in the wonder of the system.


The scene is all the more powerful because it’s one of the few in the whole movie that lingers (most of the film is shot in a quick-cut, music video style), exaggerating the point even more.


2. The subway itself is a character, mysterious and larger than life. If some kind of hostage incident were to occur on the subway, I’m certain the transit authority would not send revenue trains filled with passengers down the same tunnel, passing the hijacked train on an adjacent track. But that’s what happens in the movie.


Ridiculous? Yes. But the director clearly wanted to played up the visual appeal of the subway (and uses moving trains to feed his own need for putting something in motion in almost every scene, whether it’s the characters, the props, or the camera).


The transit control center is a high-tech place with track diagrams on the walls, mysterious flashing lights and codes, that scream complexity and importance.


While implausible, all those moving trains hurrying past the dangerous men with guns carry an implicit suggestion that this rail system is critical to the very fabric of the city. When the hijackers set a runaway subway car loose on the system, the biggest challenge is how to clear the tracks ahead of all the moving trains.


The mayor of New York City even rides the trains — and chastises one of his aides for suggesting he take a car to the crisis center. He then agrees to let the train continue making all the stops so other people on board can get where they’re going.


Strangely, the part that I thought would most play up the coolness of the subway--setting a runaway train loose on the system--was the most disappointing part. The scenes, to my mind, weren’t really suspenseful. With all the quick-cut editing, you never really got a sense of how fast the train was going or how dangerous the situation was. The danger was implied, but not supported by the visuals.

That wasn’t the case in the 1974 movie, where the camera followed the train and stayed on certain scenes long enough to show you the very real danger of rounding a tight curve in a confined space.


3. The trains are bright and clean—as they are now in New York City—and the stations are teeming with people. It's a testament to how much New York has changed. The 1974 movie didn’t shy away from showing dimly lit cars and stations, all sprayed with graffiti. But it was an environment few could say they would actually want to be in.


It reminds me of flipping through Classic Trains magazine and seeing the photos of railroads in the 1970s—with their rotting ties, weeds and grass growing between the rails, oil-soaked yards, and decrepit locomotives.


Railroading has come a long way since them. Most mainline tracks are immaculate today, and so are the modern locomotives pulling the trains.


The subway has come a long way, too. (Thank you David Gunn for jumpstarting that movement when you were running New York’s subway system.) The system always was efficient. Now it’s bright, clean, and safe.


The new cars, including the hijacked one in the film, have high-tech LED displays for passengers, sleek-looking handrails, bright lighting, and big side windows.


The tracks themselves might have looked a bit too clean for my taste. (“They vacuumed the tracks, then threw down a couple of napkins to make it look like there was garbage,” said my film-watching companion, a New York City resident.) The rats in the movie, though, are a true permanent subway fixture, no matter how much rat poison the MTA puts down.


These days, you’ll put yourself in a lot more danger taking a New York City taxicab than taking the subway. I should know — I’ve been in three car accidents riding in New York taxis. I’ve never had a problem on the subway.


4. The subway riders/hostages are window dressing. In the original, the riders on board the hijacked train had real New York attitude. “Hey, can you drop me off at Fulton Street,” one hostage asks the hijackers in the original.


But in this movie, they mostly stay in the background. We don’t know who they are, and don’t seem to care. When they are set loose on a runaway train, they hardly know what to do, other than stare at each other with worried expressions.


In the original, the hostages were seasoned train riders, who argued over how the train worked, and what might make it stop.


To me, this says something about our post-9/11 society. Exhibiting any kind of knowledge or curiosity about transit, if you’re not an employee, might label you a terrorist. Granted, not everyone gets excited about trains. (As my colleague Angela reminded me this morning, most of the riders probably just wanted to get where they were going, and didn't care how it was done.)


Still, riders used to be able to look out the front window of the train and see the train’s progress, or marvel at the engineering. That’s not possible with today’s full-sized operator’s cabs that take up the whole width of the car.


The human contact is disappearing, too. There are fewer token booth clerks and more fare machines. And signs labeled “NO” are everywhere.


Our batten-down-the-hatches mentality when it comes to railroading’s relationship with the public isn’t shared in other countries. For example, the high-speed trains I rode in Germany have windows that let you watch the engineer run the train, while signs flash the train’s speed to passengers. The train itself is a public celebration of railroad technology.


I wonder if this movement toward walling off our surroundings, in the name of security, is wise? My friends in suburbia tell me how when they drive their children around town, the kids are so plugged into ipods and cell phones, they have no sense of direction. When the children get driver’s licenses, they don’t know how to get across town or to the grocery store, no matter how many times they’ve made the trip in the backseat, because they’ve never paid attention. 


I got a similar sense that the subway riders in the movie were so used to tuning out on the train that they had no idea where they were or what to do once the runaway car whizzed past their stop.


Am I reading too much into this movie? Maybe. In the end, it was a fun ride. What’s your take?


Matt Van Hattem

Senior Editor

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