A man calling himself Ryder hijacks Pelham 123, a New York City Subway 6 train that departed from Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 p.m. Ryder is accompanied by three other heavily armed men: Bashkin, Emri and former train operator Phil Ramos. They uncouple the front car from the rest of the train and take the passengers hostage. MTA employee Walter Garber is working the Rail Control Center as a train dispatcher and receives a ransom call from Ryder, who demands $10 million in cash be paid within 60 minutes. Ryder warns that every minute past the deadline they force him to wait, he will execute a hostage.
Bashkin kills a plainclothes Transit Police officer who approaches him after recognizing that something is amiss. He and Ramos then allow all the passengers not in the front car to be released except for the motorman. Garber reluctantly negotiates with Ryder and develops a rapport, while Ramos and Emri set up Internet access in the tunnel. Ryder uses his laptop to watch the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge nearly 1,000 points during the next hour in response to the hostage-taking. One of the passenger's laptops also connects to the Internet, and the computer's webcam is activated. The webcam allows the people in the control center to observe Ryder and Ramos. Lieutenant Camonetti of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit enters the RCC to take over negotiations and Garber is ordered to leave the premises. The change infuriates Ryder, who shoots and kills the train's motorman in order to force Camonetti to bring Garber back. Garber blames Camonetti for the motorman's death.
Camonetti learns that Garber is being investigated for allegedly accepting a $35,000 bribe over a contract for new subway cars. Ryder also discovers the allegations through online news reports after Ramos told Ryder that Garber was a "big-shot" at the MTA and should not be dispatching trains and forces Garber to confess by threatening to kill a passenger. Garber explains that he was offered the bribe while deciding between two companies for a train contract, but also tells Ryder that he used the money to pay for his child's college tuition and insists that he would have made the same decision without the financial offer. Ryder expresses his admiration for Garber's willingness to risk himself to save a stranger. Meanwhile, the Mayor agrees to deliver the ransom money to Ryder and orders the NYPD to deliver it. On the way to the delivery point, the police are involved in an accident and fail to get the money there in time. Garber attempts to bluff Ryder by telling him the money has been dropped off, unaware that Ryder has been monitoring events on his laptop and knows he's being lied to. An enraged Ryder threatens to execute one of the children hostages and the child's mother. Another hostage, a former soldier, sacrifices himself to save the mother and child and is killed. A short gunfight erupts after an NYPD ESU sniper is bitten by a rat and accidentally discharges his weapon, killing Ramos.
Based on clues that Garber receives during his conversations with Ryder, the NYPD discover that Ryder's real name is Dennis Ford. He was a manager at a private equity firm before being sentenced to prison for investment fraud. Ford had agreed to a plea bargain for a three-year sentence, but was instead sentenced to ten years by the judge. One of the Mayor's aides mentions the extreme drop in the major stock indexes in response to the train hijacking, and the Mayor deduces that Ryder is actually attempting to manipulate the market via put options. Ryder demands that Garber himself deliver the ransom money, and Garber is given a pistol and flown to the terminal to make the drop. Ryder brings Garber aboard and orders him to operate the train to the next station, where he and the hijackers exit the train during a brief stop. Ryder then uses a device to rig the train to go on without them. Garber manages to separate himself from Ryder at a railway crossing and then follows him as he escapes to the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Ryder parts from Bashkin and Emri, who are later shot dead after being surrounded by police and provoking the NYPD to use deadly force on the two in an apparent suicide-by-cop.
The train comes to a halt safely, and police learn that Ryder is no longer on board. Ryder hails a taxi while Garber follows him in a truck. Ryder checks his laptop and finds that his scheme has amassed a $307 million profit. He leaves the cab on the Manhattan Bridge and takes the bridge's pedestrian walkway but Garber catches up to him. Garber holds Ryder at gunpoint, and Ryder gives him a 10-second ultimatum to pull the trigger. In the final seconds of the countdown, Ryder pulls out his gun and forces Garber to shoot him. As he lies dying, Ryder tells Garber that he considers him a hero. Afterward, the mayor thanks Garber for saving the hostages and reassures him about his bribery charges. The film concludes with Garber walking into his home carrying a bag of groceries, including a half-gallon of milk he promised his wife, Theresa, he'd bring home earlier in the film.Denzel Washington as Walter Garber, the New York City Subway dispatcher, who is negotiating with the hijackers. The negotiator in the 1974 film was a transit policeman named Lt. Zachary Garber (portrayed by Walter Matthau); Edward James Olmos played Detective Anthony Piscotti, the negotiator in the 1998 television movie.
John Travolta as Ryder / Dennis Ford, the leader of the hijackers. Instead of playing a mercenary, he plays a former Wall Street "high roller" named Dennis Ford, who blames the city of New York and the mayor for causing him to stay in prison for 10 years, longer than the guilty plea of three years. Scott courted Travolta heavily for the actor's first action role in years. Travolta earned $20 million for his work in the film. The role was originally portrayed by Robert Shaw in the 1974 film. Vincent D'Onofrio played Ryder in the 1998 TV movie. In the first two movies, Ryder used the alias "Mr. Blue."
James Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York City, who is under heavy pressure to address the hostage crisis. The character was originally portrayed by Lee Wallace in the 1974 film.
Victor Gojcaj as Bashkin, the most aggressive of the hijackers. The character, originally named "Joe Welcome", alias "Mr. Grey," was portrayed by Hector Elizondo in the 1974 film. Donnie Wahlberg played him in the 1998 TV movie.
John Turturro as Lt. Camonetti, a hostage negotiator with the NYPD's Emergency Service Unit.
Luis Guzmán as Phil Ramos, one of the hijackers. The role, originally named "Harold Longman," alias "Mr. Green," was portrayed by Martin Balsam in the 1974 film. Richard Schiff played him in the 1998 film.
Ramón Rodríguez as Delgado, an MTA train dispatcher.
Robert Vataj as Emri, the stammering young gun who helps hijack the train under the command of Ryder. The character, originally named "Steever," alias "Mr. Brown," was portrayed by Earl Hindman in the 1974 film.
Gbenga Akinnagbe as Wallace, one of the hostages on the train.
Alex Kaluzhsky as George/Geo, one of the hostages on the train.
Michael Rispoli as John Johnson, Garber's boss and head of the MTA NYC Transit's Rail Control Center.
John Benjamin Hickey as Deputy Mayor LaSalle
Jason Butler Harner as Mr. Thomas
Frank Wood as Police Commissioner Sterman
Aunjanue Ellis as Garber's Wife, Theresa
Brian Haley as Police Captain Hill
Adrian Martinez as Cabbie
The first drafts of the script faced the challenge of updating the novel with contemporary technology, including cell phones, GPS, laptops, thermal imaging, and a post-9/11 world in New York City. In December 2007, David Koepp, who adapted the novel for Scott and Washington said:
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. It’s thirty 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.
Koepp's drafts were meant to be "essentially familiar" to those who read the novel, preserving the "great hero vs. villain thing" of the original. Brian Helgeland, the only one receiving credit for the screenplay, took the script a different direction, making the remake more like the 1974 film than the novel and, as Helgeland put it, making it about "two guys who weren't necessarily all that different from each other." As writer Michael Ordoña describes it:
Whereas the novel is told from more than 30 perspectives — keeping readers off balance because it is unknown which characters the writer might suddenly discard — the two films focus on the lead hijacker and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee with whom he communicates by phone. The new version sharpens that focus until it's almost exclusively a duel between disgraced MTA dispatcher Walter Garber and manic gunman Ryder.
In the book and original film, Ryder is "cold-blooded and calculating", but in the 2009 film he is a "loose cannon willing to kill innocents not out of necessity but out of spite." Also Ryder in the original film and book is portrayed as a normal-looking businessman while in the 2009 film he looks as if he has adopted prison life, sporting very visible prison tattoos and the laid-back style of a biker.
In the 1974 film, the main character (played by Walter Matthau) is named Zachary Garber and is a lieutenant in the transit police; in the 2009 film, the main character (played by Denzel Washington) is named Walter Garber and works as a subway train dispatcher.
Ryder also demands $10 million instead of $1 million as in the original film and book or $5 million in the made-for TV film. Ryder does not use the "Mr. Blue" nickname as in the original film. Instead, Ryder is a nickname adopted by Dennis Ford. In the 1974 film, the train-operating hostage-taker is the only member of the group to live long enough to see himself behind bars, while all of the hostage takers die in the 2009 film.
Production began in March 2008 with all cast and crew being required to attend a track safety course taught by MTA personnel, as much of the filming would take place in the subway on active tracks. For the initial hijack sequence at Grand Central on the Flushing Line, the crew used the westbound track during late night hours while regular 7 train service operated in both directions on the eastbound track. An actual R142A train (the model used on the Pelham Line) at the time was used for the Grand Central sequence. Many locations in Brooklyn were used during filming. A large portion was filmed on the unused local track between the Hoyt–Schermerhorn Streets station and the New York Transit Museum on the Fulton Street Line.
For exterior filming only, a retrofitted R62A car was used during filming to give the appearance of an R142A car. Interior car scenes were filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens on a set that more closely resembles the newer and larger R160B (which were still being delivered at the time of filming) used on the Astoria Line, which runs in the Astoria neighborhood where Kaufman is based. Outdoor street filming locations were the lower level of the Manhattan Bridge; Tudor City, including the First Avenue tunnel near the Headquarters of the United Nations; the Upper East Side; Times Square and the Theater District area; the Whitlock Avenue station in the Bronx; and Turtle Bay. Some scenes were also shot in Lower Manhattan.
The scene with the police leaving the Brooklyn Federal Reserve, which does not exist, was actually the rear of the USPS Office of the Inspector General, located next to the World Trade Center, in front of the PATH station entrance.
The film was originally scheduled to release on July 31, 2009, but the release was moved earlier to June 12. The first theatrical poster was released on February 10, 2009, while the first trailer for the film debuted at the screenings of The International on February 13, 2009.
John Travolta decided against promoting the film, as it was released just five months after the death of his 16-year–old son, Jett. He stated that he still was not ready to step back into the spotlight. Travolta released the following statement: "Tony, Denzel, Luis, John, James and Sony Pictures stepped up without hesitation to help promote this wonderful film, and their unselfish efforts have allowed my family the additional time to reconcile our loss. "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," he added. "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."
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 51% of 206 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 5.4/10. The site's critical consensus says: "Despite a strong cast, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 suffers under the excesses of Tony Scott's frantic direction, and fails to measure up to the 1974 original." Metacritic gave the film a metascore of 55% based on 33 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews".
Jim Ridley of the Village Voice noted that the new Pelham film was not as good as the original: "Scott's redo comes up short in almost every regard against the '74 model ... If it's somehow unfair to compare the two, why was The Taking of Pelham 123 even remade?" "As expected, Tony Scott’s hyperkinetic, entirely unnecessary revamp attempts to update Pelham by cranking the volume and inflating the Noo Yawk attitude to a cartoonish level of macho posturing," wrote Sean Burns in Philadelphia Weekly. Writing in New York Press, Armond White was critical of Tony Scott's direction: "Tony Scott’s craft cannot create suspense, it substitutes noise, cursing and brutality." Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter noted: "Even with the plot's built-in ticking clock, the film relinquishes the tautly calibrated pace in the third act, never to get completely back on track." David Edelstein's review for New York Magazine carried the headline "The Taking of Pelham 123 is not worth running down a flight of subway-station stairs for."
Roger Ebert gave the film two and a half stars, and began his review with "There’s not much wrong with Tony Scott’s “The Taking of Pelham 123,” except that there’s not much really right about it." Ebert commented that the lead actors lacked passion in their performances: "Oh, John Travolta is angry and Denzel Washington is determined, but you don’t sense passion in the performances. They’re about behaving, not evoking." He also compared it unfavorably with the 1974 original, calling it "less juicy" and opining that the special effects are "not an improvement"."The only performance notable is by newcomer Victor Gojcaj, silent but deadly." Christy Lemire of the Associated Press gave the film two out of four stars, and called it "another overcaffeinated thriller".
Writing for the Orlando Sentinel, Roger Moore gave the film three out of five stars, and commented "Pelham, for its crowd-pleasing heart-racing virtues ... plays out like a Tony-Denzel pairing that Denzel, at least, should have taken a pass on." In a review for MSNBC, Alonso Duralde was critical of John Travolta's performance in the film, comparing it to his roles in Swordfish and Battlefield Earth: "Travolta remains singularly unbelievable as a villain. In movies like this and 'Swordfish' and, let's not forget, 'Battlefield Earth,' the actor strives for malice but generally can’t get much darker than playground-bully meanness." Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4, stating "This movie hits you like 600 volts from a sparking third rail. Damn straight it's electrifying [...] The only letdown comes in Scott's handling of the passengers, who remain frustratingly generic." Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, writing in his blog, commented that he loved the film, and thought it was one of three of Scott's great movies of the 2000s, saying: "...the coherence in his films is not between the pages of a script; it's between shots, and his greatest asset (both to himself and to cinema as a whole) is his ability to construct scenes out of shots that take place across great distances of space or time, as in his two best movies: Déjà Vu (much of whose running time consists of characters watching a past event through a sort of time machine) and his remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 (where the two main characters develop a complex relationship despite not meeting until the end of the movie)."
The film debuted in the number three spot with approximately US$25 million at the box office in the United States in its opening weekend, in what The New York Times called "an unusually quiet weekend at the box office because of soft ticket sales for The Taking of Pelham 123". The film was beaten out by The Hangover and Up for the number one and number two spots. The Taking of Pelham 123 had a production budget of $100 million, and was co–financed with Relativity Media and Sony Pictures. Ben Fritz of the Los Angeles Times commented on the box office results of the film's opening weekend ($23,373,102): "Although far from disastrous, that's a soft start for a film budgeted at more than $100 million." As of September 2011, the film has managed to earn $150,166,126 worldwide.
DVD and Blu-ray versions of the movie with bonus features were released on November 3, 2009. The film opened up at #3 at the DVD sales chart, making $14.1m off 919,000 DVD units in the first week of release. These features included commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes. In South Korea, DVD, and Blu-ray were released on October 23, 2009.