Few settings in movies are more appealing than a train. Because they are such ordinary modes of transportation, seeing them upended into a place of danger and tension is almost always invigorating. Nowhere is that more evident than in the New York City subway system that serves millions of people every single day. Whenever something tragic happens on one of their trains, it makes national news because of how far-reaching and important that system is. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” weaponizes this disruption of the ordinary probably better than any other train film.
Part of what makes it so effective is the accuracy of its setting. You could get on a 6 train today and take the same path as the train that gets hijacked in the film, from the 59th Street station down to the 23rd Street one. So many movies that are inextricably tied to the cities they are set in still take a tremendous amount of shortcuts in geography, favoring the idea of where they take place over reality. “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” understands that the reality of New York City is far more dynamic than a version of the city you could imagine. It cuts away any barrier to entry or shred of artifice.
For a high-concept film like this, having that lack of a barrier is crucial to make the audience buy-in as immediately as humanly possible. All you want is to put them in the middle of the tension and hold them there until you can stretch that elastic band as far as it can go. There’s no better way to do that than have it be as real as possible.