Friday, June 12, 2009
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 -- confession, ransom and redemption
Director: Tony Scott, 2009.
Tony Scott, brother of Ridley, has teamed up with Denzel Washington before in action movies, such as Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Deja Vu. Now they are reunited in the remake of this 1974 crime thriller. As remakes go, this is a good one.
Washington is Walter Garber, a transit authority worker who directs the subway trains in New York City. But on one fateful day a train on his line is hijacked by Ryder (John Travolta) and a team of trigger-happy criminals.
When the 1:23 train from Pelham stops in the subway tunnel between stations, an undercover traffic cop on one of the subway train cars suspects it is more than a problem with the train. He is mercilessly gunned down and this triggers the passengers to realize their day has taken a turn for the worse. They are hostages. When Garber tries to contact the train, called Pelham 1-2-3, he finds Ryder, an enigma, on the other end of the line sounding uncouth and volatile, vacillating between friendly banter and murderous threats. New York has a major problem and Garber is slap-bang in the middle of it.
Scott has created a tense, fast-paced crime thriller. Right from the start he uses edgy hand-held cameras to give a disorienting feel. He uses two main sets, the windowless underground transit authority command center and the subway car to communicate a claustrophobic feel which further adds to the tension and atmosphere. Then he pits good guy Washington against bad guy Travolta to play out the race agains the clock hostage situation. But life is not black and white, and there is more to both.
At one point Ryder comments to Garber, "When you put your socks on this morning, did you think your day would be like this?" It all seems like a joke, a caper to him. But he is sitting next to a kidnapped driver and there is a dead cop behind him. This is no joke.
This offhand remark highlights a biblical tenet: we really don't know what each day has in store for us. James said it this way, "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow" (Jas 4:13-14). We wake thinking this will be an ordinary day and God, not fate as Garber refers to, throws us a curve ball. But how we respond or react says a lot about our character. Paul, a prisoner in Rome, wrote to the church at Philippi: "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil. 1:27). The circumstances are out of our control but our attitude is not. When our day goes sour our attitude should not.
Garber, who seems to be a Catholic, has a depth of character that is not obvious at first. Thrown in at the deep end with no experience in hostage negotiation, he has to do his best and deal with Ryder. Indeed, Ryder seems to have an affinity to Garber to the extent that when NYPD Hostage Negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) appears on the scene Ryder will not deal with him. He has built an unlikely bond with Garber.
Character and patience Barber has, but he also has a darker secret. When Ryder discovers this he exploits it to his advantage. His banter with Garber turns into psychotic counseling. His cubicle becomes a confessional booth. Garber must confess publicly or Ryder will kill an innocent hostage.
This scenario is intense and thought-provoking. If we were put into a situation where our "sins" had caught us out but we maintained our innocence, would we confess in public if it would save a life? Would we do so if it risked sacrificing our freedom? Would we lie or tell the truth? Would it be ethical to lie in this scenario? Indeed, would we have the quickness of wits to lie? And if we did, would we be believed or not? In the film Garber's confession is powerfully emotive but it left me wondering if he told the truth or not.
Subplot aside, Scott ratchets up the tension since it is clear that the hostage-takers cannot escape. The tunnel is filled with SWAT snipers both in front and behind the stationary subway train. How will the criminals escape? Will the City pay the ransom demands? James Gandolfini shows up as the Mayor who does not want blood on his hands. There is an exciting race-against-time car dash through the city with twists that cause us to wish time would slow down. But the clock keeps ticking and Ryder becomes more and more explosive.
Pelham has a number of references to Catholicism, apart from the obvious confessional scene. The innocence or guilt of the ordinary folks on the train is called into question, as is that of the top city bureaucrats. Who is really innocent? Although Garber supposes the hostages are innocents, Ryder refutes this. They are all as guilty as he. Of course, both Catholics and Protestant Christians would affirm that all people experience the effects of original sin and the fall (Gen. 3). No one is without sin, no one is guilt-free. We even know this innately, as we experience the feelings and results of guilt.
Ryder offers an enigmatic comment on God, one that he repeats in the film: "We all owe God a death." Contradicting him, Garber retorts, "We all owe God a life." These appear to be two diametrically opposed statements. So, which is it? Do we owe God a death or a life? Perhaps the truth is found in both statements. Paul, author of Romans, says "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:23) and as a result "the wages of sin is death" (6:23). We all owe God a death because of our sin. Yet God gave his own son Jesus for us to die in our place (Rom. 3:23-26) and if we choose to follow him we can experience life. In this new life, Paul says "to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). Followers of Jesus owe God a life; we must live this life he has paid for by bringing glory to him.
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 is an exciting thrill ride with a redemptive, perhaps self-redemptive, ending. Yet reflecting on the ransom required we can consider the One who paid more than all the money in the world to ransom us when we were hostages in our own subway train of sin (Matt. 20:28). Now, it is our choice if we will walk out of our hostage situation and experience freedom in Christ, or if we will remain trapped, scared out of our wits, by that wicked hostage-taker, Satan.
Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM