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New York is star of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.”

Posted by GoreMaster Special Effects on June 7, 2009

On the set of Columbia Pictures' action thriller "The Taking of Pelham 123," starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

On the set of Columbia Pictures' action thriller "The Taking of Pelham 123," starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta.

by Robert Dominguez – Daily News  

A high-powered cast that boasts the likes of Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, John Turturro and Luis Guzman gets seriously upstaged in “The Taking of ­Pelham 1 2 3.”

From the moment Travolta — sporting a Fu Manchu, prison tats and a don’t-mess-with-me sneer — struts down a crowded midtown street in the frenetic, stylized opening scene, there’s no mistaking who the real star of the movie is:

New York City.

When it comes to capturing the grit, grime, corruption and crime of the city in the bad old ’70s, few films did it ­better than the original “Pelham,” the 1974 cult classic about a gang of heavily armed hoods who hijack a subway car full of passengers for a $1 million ransom. (The movie, in fact, was chosen in a poll of Daily News readers as their all-time favorite New York film.)

Which is why director Tony Scott and the producers of this latest “Pelham,” opening Friday, went to great lengths to make the contemporary version as Big Apple-authentic as possible.

Not only did Scott shoot most of the film on actual locations rather than soundstages, especially the subway scenes, he purposely cast a handful of native New York actors as characters on both sides of the law — including a Bronx-bred man with a long rap sheet to play one of the four criminals.

“The original had an iconic New York sensibility,” says Scott, who began principal photography in early 2008.

“But this is a different version, and New York is actually a strong character in this. From the very first scene, I wanted to represent the city as the third star of the movie, and not only show the noise and anxiety and the dangerousness of it, but how [Travolta’s character] plots his revenge and humiliation of the city that took him down.”

Like the ’74 version, “Pelham” is based on the 1973 novel by John Godey. The original, starring Walter Matthau as a transit cop engaged in a battle of wits with the head hijacker (Robert Shaw), is a tense and often funny thrill ride that intertwines cops, criminals, politicians, the media and a cross section of stock New York characters who are taken hostage: a hapless hooker, a hippie, an old Jewish man, a Puerto Rican woman and a militant black guy among them.

JohnTravolta and Director Tony Scott - photo by Bobby Bank

JohnTravolta and Director Tony Scott - photo by Bobby Bank

In the new film, Denzel Washington plays the good guy (he’s a train dispatcher) against Travolta’s villain. Gandolfini, who grew up in New Jersey and lives in the city, plays the mayor. New York-based actors Luis Guzman and John Turturro portray a hijacker and the hostage negotiator, respectively

 “This is such a New York story, and we were very scientific in how we did the casting,” says producer Todd Black. “That went for the extras, too. Audiences can tell when they’re being put on.”

“The fact that they went out and got all these guys from New York was essential,” says Guzman, who grew up on the lower East Side. “It was important that the characters didn’t seem out of place.”

Finding the right place to shoot was likewise as important to the movie’s look. Though many of the subway car scenes were filmed at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens — along with a life-size facsimile of NYC Transit’s state-of-the-art Rail Control Center — NYC Transit gave the production unprecedented access. Scott had his cast and crew shoot several key scenes on subway platforms around the city, plus the tunnels of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn, into the wee hours — often while actual trains rumbled past.

“The one thing you learn real fast is to respect the system,” says Guzman, who, with the rest of the cast and crew, had to take a mandatory “track class” on safety to be allowed on the rails. “There’s no such thing as getting bumped by a train. You get hit, it’s probably the end.”

Ironically, with all the attention to detail that went into the making of “Taking,” the filmmakers did fudge on one rather important plot point.

“You can’t have a single subway car in operation,” says John Johnson, NYC Transit’s chief transportation officer. “So it’s not really possible to hijack a train like in the movie.”

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