So far this summer movie season, we’ve had comic book heroes, futuristic space adventurers and wickedly hungover partygoers. What we haven’t yet seen in the warm months of 2009 is a straight-up, high-intensity thriller.
All that will change Friday (June 12) when [movie id="367658"]“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″[/movie] speeds into theaters. It will be 90 minutes of [movieperson id="65823"]Denzel Washington[/movieperson] vs. [movieperson id="63075"]John Travolta[/movieperson], overseen by veteran thrill-master Tony Scott (“Man on Fire,” “Enemy of the State”). Denzel plays a flabby subway dispatcher who gets pulled into an incident of domestic terrorism when Travolta’s Fu Manchu’d villain hijacks a New York subway car and threatens to start killing passengers.
The big-screen skirmish between two Hollywood heavyweights might have you gripping your chair with clammy palms, but there’s no reason to sweat before you head into the theater. MTV News has been conducting our own bit of pop-culture surveillance on this production, and now — on the count of three — we present to you our very special cheat sheet for “Taking of Pelham.”
The Original Rides on “Pelham”
Before news broke that Washington and Scott would be reteaming for a fourth time (following “Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire” and “Déjà Vu”), there was a 1998 TV movie called “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” starring Edward James Olmos. And before that, there was a 1974 movie of the same name, with Walter Matthau in the role now occupied by Denzel. All of them were based on a 1973 novel from best-selling author Morton Freedgood.
The ’74 film told the story of a genius plot in which four hijackers overtook a NYC subway car, extorted a $1 million ransom, and then escaped before sending the train careening around the tunnels of Manhattan, guaranteeing police would head the wrong way.
Riding “Pelham” Into the Present Day
More than three decades later — in an age of ubiquitous cell phones, laptops and GPS devices — how do you update the tale, keep the hijackers’ scheme satisfyingly brainy and deal with the realities of contemporary technology? That was the challenge facing original screenwriter David Koepp.
“I wrote many drafts to try and put it in the present day and keep all the great execution that was there from the first one,” he told MTV News in December 2007. “It’s 30 years later, so you have to take certain things into account. Hopefully we came up with a clever way to move it to the present.”
Brian Helgeland (“Man on Fire,” “Mystic River”) eventually took over screenwriting duties.
News broke in September 2007 that Washington and Scott were planning to remake “Pelham.” A month later, Travolta signed on to perform in his first action movie in five years. James Gandolfini eventually assumed the role of New York mayor and John Turturro took on the job of a hostage negotiator.
The Characters, the Challenges, the Vision
“Overweight, shirt too tight, spilling coffee on myself, and tripping and falling”: This is how Denzel described his character to MTV News recently. “I like the fact that he’s just a regular Joe,” he added. “There’s nothing special about him. He’s not heroic. … He’s an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.”
The director’s test was to create a thriller based on a story that had Denzel sitting behind a desk for most of the film, communicating with his adversary without the benefit of coming face-to-face with him. “This movie was a challenge, because it’s about two guys on the phone for 90 percent of the movie,” Scott told MTV News.
Five months before the film was set to come out, Travolta and his family suffered an unspeakable tragedy when their 16-year-old son Jett died unexpectedly at his parents’ vacation home in the Bahamas. The actor has not participated in any press for the release of “Pelham.”
“I am very proud of the efforts we have all made in making this movie, and I want each and every one of you to enjoy it,” Travolta wrote in a statement on his Web site. “So, set your calendars for the weekend of June 12th. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”
While yet another go at “Pelham” certainly seems unlikely — at least for, say, another 30 years — Washington and Scott will be reteaming for a fifth film soon. In “Unstoppable,” Washington will play a veteran engineer who joins a young train conductor (likely to be Chris Pine of “Star Trek” fame) to stop a runaway train carrying a shipment of toxic chemicals.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”
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