Walter Garber works as a subway dispatcher for New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. His job is crucial, yet predictable, involving the careful monitoring and direction of one of the nation’s largest public transit systems. But on one fateful day, this regimen of order and punctuality is thrust into chaos when a group of armed criminals hijack a subway car departing the Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 p.m., detaching it from the rest of the train and taking its passengers hostage.
Led by a man known only as Ryder, the hijackers demand a ransom of $10 million within one hour, vowing to kill one hostage for each minute exceeding this timeframe. Ryder relays their demands in a phone call directly to Garber, forcing the dispatcher into an elaborate game of wits with life-or-death consequences. In a race against time, Garber must employ his knowledge of the vast transit network beneath his feet to save a subway car full of innocent people. In many ways, Garber is fighting for his own redemption; a former MTA administrator demoted following accusations of bribery, he must also prove his own trustworthiness in the eyes of the public.
Presented by Columbia Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in association with Relativity Media, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a crime thriller that will keep viewers guessing until the end. Throughout the entire film, one question remains: even if the subway hijackers receive the ransom money, how could they possibly escape?
Critically acclaimed screenwriter Brian Helgeland adapted the screenplay for The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 from the best-selling novel by John Godey. Similarly titled The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the book inspired a 1974 feature film starring Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, as well as a 1998 TV movie adaptation featuring Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio.
While Godey’s original novel views the subway hijacking from a broader social perspective, weaving the media and public responses to the incident into his narrative, Helgeland’s adaptation hones in on the tense interactions between a criminal mastermind and a dispatcher untrained in law enforcement. By further developing the relationship between Ryder and Garber, Helgeland injects new levels of suspense into the classic crime thriller. Naturally, Helgeland also updated the story’s setting to better relate to modern audiences. With the hijacking occurring in present-day New York City rather than the 1970s, both technology and the post-9/11 social climate influence several key differences in how the hijacking unfolds.
Denzel Washington is widely known for critically praised performances in films including Training Day (2001), American Gangster (2007), Man on Fire (2004), and Inside Man (2006), and is also a successful director, having both helmed and starred in Antwone Fisher (2002), The Great Debaters (2007), and Fences (2016). The two-time Oscar-winning actor brought a wealth of talent and star power to the dynamic role of Walter Garber, and reported being initially drawn to the uniqueness of the character. Although Garber serves as the central protagonist in the crime thriller, he is not a police officer or typical action hero. Instead, he is a civil servant—a true everyman faced with an incredibly daunting task.
Having played hardened FBI and CIA agents, as well as a hostage negotiator, in previous films, Denzel Washington embraced Garber’s “everyman” nature in his performance, striving to present a man whose simple nature offers a unique perspective on the events unfolding before him.
Just as Washington was intrigued by Garber’s simplicity—an unusual trait for many action movie protagonists—the project’s key creative minds sought the actor out for his unmatched talent and charisma. As stated by screenwriter Brian Helgeland, “Only an actor like Denzel Washington, with his powerful screen presence and immense talent, could make such an ordinary character in an ordinary desk job so compelling to watch.”
In contrast, John Travolta found himself drawn to his character’s unpredictable nature. Boasting a filmography stocked with Hollywood classics including Grease (1978), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Saturday Night Fever (1977), Travolta was the producers’ ideal choice to play such a larger-than-life character as Ryder. The prolific actor particularly enjoyed the versatility of playing a somewhat unstable villain, stating, “”With a bad guy you can create your own moral fiber for him in varying degrees […] I can be wild, calm, nutty, charming, or whatever I want.”
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 benefited from a cast and crew of experienced collaborators, as well as the cooperation of New York City’s public transit authorities. In addition to directing hits including Top Gun (1986) and Enemy of the State (1998), Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Tony Scott previously directed Denzel Washington in Man on Fire (2004), Déjà Vu (2006), Unstoppable (2010), and Crimson Tide (1995).
Screenwriter Brain Helgeland, who received the 1998 Academy Award for L.A. Confidential (1997), previously adapted the screenplay for Man on Fire and was instrumental in getting The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 off the ground. It was Helgeland who first approached producer Todd Black—who worked on Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001)—with the idea of creating a retelling of the popular novel.
Assisted by NYC Transit’s Department of Corporate Communications and their transit liaison, Alberteen Anderson, director Tony Scott and his production team underwent extensive on-site training nine months before they started filming. In addition to ensuring their safety while working within the subway system, this period also allowed the crew to scout the entire rail system for ideal filming locations—an unprecedented level of access for a film crew.
The production team also visited the retired Brooklyn Rail Control Center depicted in the 1974 film to better understand its layout and function, and toured the MTA’s newer, state-of-the-art facility. Constructed on a sound stage in Queens, the on-screen control center combines the best of both worlds with a classic, functional style enhanced by impressive technical props, such as 150-foot interactive video boards.