Editor’s note: Today marks the debut of a WND “double feature,” as news editor Drew Zahn examines the messages and merit of popular movies in the “Popcorn and a (world)view” column, which reviews new releases, and the “Still in theaters” column, which does the same for slightly older films you can still catch at most first-run cinemas.

Ever since Adam said, “The woman you put here gave me the fruit!” and Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” human nature has tried to push responsibility for our actions onto others.

But what happens when a culture becomes so defined by this one character flaw that it squelches any glimpse of individual duty or self-sacrifice? When a whole civilization can be characterized by its one common mantra: “Hey, it’s not my job”?

This anti-utopian vision of human depravity is exactly the picture painted of New York City by the makers of “The Taking of Pelham 123,” a subway hijacking thriller whose psychotic “bad guy” asks the residents of the Big Apple, “Are any of you heroes? I thought not.”

Like Abraham appealing to God to save Sodom if any righteous man could be found there, the character Ryder (played by John Travolta) is desperately looking for one man, any man, who will take responsibility to act on behalf of the unlucky few he has taken hostage in a subway car beneath Manhattan’s streets.

What makes “Pelham” so compelling, however, is how easily we can relate to the characters who answer, “Not me, man.”

Viewers will need to suspend, for a moment, the fact that the hijacker is the villain – just long enough to recognize that in Ryder’s evil face we see a mirror, daring us to ask of ourselves, “If you were in the biblical story, would you be the Good Samaritan? Really? Or would you just walk by and pray someone helps that guy?”

From a mayor looking to retire to the Caribbean, to a cop looking to get off his shift in 10 minutes, to a soldier looking to forget the sacrifices of the past, one by one, the characters of “Pelham” look a lot like us and not a lot like the Good Samaritan.

Ryder’s challenge reaches a climax when he offers the mayor (played by James Gandolfini) a messianic deal: Trade your life for the 19 hostages in the tunnel. Will he do it? Would you? Ryder knows the answer, but it infuriates him nonetheless.

“Who’s responsible for who lives and who dies in New York City?” Ryder cries.

He asserts the answer isn’t one man’s problem, but the whole city’s problem, for the film’s New York has become a culture of selfishness.

Ryder’s barbs of conviction even tear down our usual defenses, reciting a scriptural premise that is often espoused, but not often believed:

When city rail employee Walter Garber (played by Denzel Washington), pleads with Ryder for the lives of the “innocent” subway passengers, Ryder affronts us all with Romans 3:23, shouting, “No one is innocent!”

And indeed, none of us are innocent of the charges that Ryder presents – selfishness, carelessness, dodging of responsibility – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t heroes among us.

As Ryder sees his beliefs about human depravity in the city of selfishness confirmed again and again, he is pleasantly startled by Garber, a common man taking an uncommon stand to do what’s right, even at tremendous personal cost.

Garber, however, is no sinless messiah. He is stained, a man with a bribery scandal hanging over his head, a man who tries, like many others, to shift the responsibility to someone else, but when lives are on the line, Garber takes the job (c’mon, it’s Denzel Washington; you knew he’d play the hero, right?).

Garber’s flawed humanity stands as an echo to Ryder’s twisted morality play. There are no perfect heroes in this melodrama, there are only real people being presented with real opportunities to take responsibility for themselves and others. And in the face of real evil, will we find enough heroes among the fallen and flawed to confront it?

In the end, “The Taking of Pelham 123” is a film that offers a brutal, gritty and vivid picture of the truth behind the cliché: “All it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

Content advisory

  • “Pelham 123” is swamped in excessive, pointless profanity that nearly drowns any meaningful dialogue in a flood of “f” words. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t recognize the overkill, for the cheapening of the English language through a constant stream of cussing not only detracts from the quality of the movie, but also renders “Pelham” unwatchable for many audiences.
  • The film has some suggestive sexuality in it, but no outright nudity or sex.
  • As may be expected in a film of this genre, there is violence, blood and gore.
  • The film touches on several religious themes, including the inherent sinfulness of all mankind, the Catholic doctrine of original sin, the question of fate vs. luck, the question of self-redemption, and an intriguing repeated statement by Ryder that “we all owe God a death,” which can coincide with biblical teachings, though Ryder’s application is suspect.

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