The film opens with shots of New York City in midmorning. Several men are gathered on the platform waiting for a train. Ryder (John Travolta) is waiting on a platform for Pelham 1 2 3. His three accomplices board the train at earlier stops and they wait for Ryder’s stop to initiate their plan to hijack the Pelham train.
At the dispatch center somewhere in New York, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is coordinating trains and is shown to be an average worker. Delgado, one of Walter’s coworkers, tells Garber that he’s sorry Walter got demoted, but Walter shrugs it off. Walter tells Delgado that he will be back in charge soon.
The train pulls up to Ryder’s stop. Phil Ramos (Luis Guzman) is positioned behind the motorman’s booth, while Emri and Bashkim position themselves at the ends of the second cart. Ryder blocks the view out of the motorman’s side window, which makes the motorman open the side window to tell Ryder to move. Ryder pulls a gun out and tells the motorman to open the door. The motorman does so, and Ramos slips into the motorman booth. From a security camera view, nothing suspicious seems to be happening. Ryder boards the train and Ramos makes the motorman drive down the tunnel and then come to a stop.
Walter sees the Pelham train stop and tries to contact the motorman. He has Delgado look up who is driving the Pelham train and continues to reach him. Delgado identifies the motorman as Jerry Pollard. Walter knows Pollard and tries to get him to respond, but Ryder tells Pollard that he only has to do what Ryder tells him to do.
Emri corners the conductor in the second car and, at gunpoint, takes her keys and authorization card. Ramos takes these and meets with Bashkim at the door to the first car. Emri enters the first car, leaving Bashkim to guard the conductor. They begin uncoupling the second cart from the primary one. Once the first car is released, it moves a hundred yards down the track before stopping once again. An undercover transit cop notices what is happening and goes to confront them. Bashkim shoots him with a submachine gun freaking out all the passengers. Ryder and Emri hear the gunshots from the second car and Ryder yells at Bashkim for an explanation. Ryder talks to the conductor and tells her to lead all the passengers from the cars left behind back to the platform, to safety.
Walter and Delgado are given reports of gunfire in the station. Ryder takes Pollard’s radio and contacts Walter. He tells Walter that he has 19 hostages aboard the Pelham and that he wants the city of New York to give him $ 526,315.79 for each hostage. This comes out to about 10,000,000 dollars and one penny. Ryder tells Walter that he can keep the penny as a broker’s fee and that he will give Walter one hour to “broker” the deal between Ryder and the Mayor of New York.
Walter tries to explain that he is just a civil servant and has no way of contacting the Mayor of New York. Delgado calls the police and they send over a hostage negotiation team. Walter’s superior, John Johnson, takes a patronizing stance against Walter because of the fact that it was Walter who got this situation. Walter was accused of taking a bribe and is under investigation, which is why he was demoted. Walter and Johnson face off, but Ryder interrupts. Walter and Ryder converse while waiting for the police to contact the mayor and Walter is able to discover that Ryder is religious used to work for the city in some capacity and was once in prison. After getting off the radio with Walter, Ryder has Bashkim and Ramos set up a router so they can receive Internet in the tunnel.
Inside the Pelham train, the passengers are in a state of shock. George, a teen traveling with his laptop who had been video chatting prior to the incident, is on the floor when he sees his laptop go back online. His girlfriend asks what’s going on (via a Bluetooth head clip) and George tells her to stream the live feed on their site and to contact the Media. This gives the Media, and by extension the police, an inside look at the situation. Meanwhile, a mother is trying to protect her son but doesn’t know how they can make it out of the situation alive. She notices an African American man, Wallace, wearing an air force ring and asks if he has a plan. He asks her if she is asking because he’s black, but she points out the ring and says that her husband used to wear one like that. Wallace tells her it was another life.
The Mayor of New York (James Gandolfini) is riding the train to work. His security team arrives and wants to take the Mayor to the dispatch center so that they can arrange for a briefing. The Mayor is at the end of his term and isn’t running for reelection, so he just wants to make it through without a terrible incident marking his last days in office. The security team is about to make the train skip all of its stops, upsetting the people onboard, but the Mayor tells the security team that they won’t skip any stops. This pleases the people on board who say, “You ain’t as big a douche bag as they say.”
The Negotiation team arrives, led by Vincent Camonetti (John Turturro), and Johnson relieves Walter of his post so that the professionals can handle Ryder. Ryder however, has other plans. Ramos, who used to work for the New York Subway system, tells Ryder that Walter is higher brass and shouldn’t be answering dispatch calls. Ryder googles Walter and discovers what Walter is accused of. He radios in just as Walter leaves.
Camonetti responds to Ryder’s call, hoping to establish a connection. Ryder tells Camonetti that he doesn’t want to talk to some “slime ball Italian” and tells him that if Walter doesn’t return to his post in 60 seconds, he will kill Jerry Pollard. Camonetti doesn’t do it, and Ryder shoots Pollard, telling him that he was always going to be the first to die. Ryder gives Camonetti another sixty seconds before he kills George. Delgado finds Walter outside the building and they arrive just in time to prevent George’s death.
However, George isn’t off the hook yet. Ryder wants to know what happened with Walter and the bribe. Walter denies accepting the bribe, but Ryder is certain that Walter took it. Ryder tells Walter that if he doesn’t tell him what happened, George will die. Walter admits he took the bribe and explains that he was sent to Japan to pick a new set of trains for the train system. He was going to vote for the Japanese model and, when the Japanese offered him a bribe, he took it since he was going to choose that model anyway. Ryder is impressed that Walter would save a person he doesn’t know with his honesty. He lets George live and makes George thank Walter for saving his life.
Johnson is shocked at Walter’s admission while Camonetti is sympathetic. Camonetti asks Walter for a voluntary search of his premises in order to maintain that there is no pre-existing connection between Walter and Ryder. Walter allows it. Johnson moves for Walter’s immediate removal on the grounds of admitting to a felony, but Camonetti disagrees considering that Walter is the one Ryder has taken a liking to. Camonetti assembles a sniper team around the Pelham train.
With 37 minutes to the deadline, the Mayor gives his authorization to send the money. He arrives at the dispatch center, which is surrounded by reporters. Ryder watches the arrival and decides to play a little game. He tells Walter to put the Mayor on the line in order to broker a new deal. He tells the Mayor that he is willing to trade all 19 passengers for the Mayor. The Mayor considers it, but his aides tell him not to cause a spectacle, so he denies the offer. Ryder screams that he would NEVER give the Mayor that deal since the Mayor isn’t important enough. He then lectures Walter on the fact that the Mayor works for roughly a dollar a day, but somehow affords expensive suits (implying bribery). Ryder tells Walter that the Mayor does the same thing, but the Mayor is willing to put Walter out of a job for it. Hypocrisy on the behalf of the city of New York. Ryder makes it clear that the city of New York failed him enough, and its time it paid. 28 minutes to the deadline. Seeing the streamed video, Delgado and Walter laugh when they recognize Phil Ramos. Turns out that when Phil worked for the New York Transit Department, he was high while driving a train and crashed, killing ten people. He was sent to prison for negligence.
The police car carrying the money crashes on route to the drop center. A motorcycle brigade drives the four bags carrying the 10 million dollar ransom. However, it becomes clear that they will not be able to arrive on time because of the delay the car crashed. Walter and Camonetti debate whether or not they should lie to Ryder. Walter decides to stall for time and tries to chat Ryder up. Ryder tells him a story about how he went to Norway with an “ass model” and how during a dog sledding ride, a dog that was running shit while it ran and got crap all over him. Ryder relates this to his time in prison and how he couldn’t go to the bathroom from fear but remembered the dog, doing what it had to do. It inspired Ryder. Walter asks if that is how Ryder met Phil Ramos, which freaks Phil out. Ryder hangs up. The Mayor takes interest in this story and realizes that Ryder used to work Wall Street. He starts pulling up information on Wall Street brokers who went to prison for illegal activities.
While Phil and Ryder wait for the drop, they discuss death and how it is likely that today is their last day on earth. Ryder tells him that visualization is a powerful tool in such instances. A sniper positioned a few yards away is aiming at Ramos when a rat crawls up his pants and bites him. He accidentally kills Ramos and Ryder and the remaining hijackers fire into the tunnels, forcing the police from their positions. Ryder calls Walter and asks if the money arrived. Since Ryder is watching the feed, he knows the money hasn’t arrived yet. Walter lies and Ryder loses it. He sees the number seven and counts off the passengers until reaching the mother. He points the gun at her and is about to execute her but Wallace steps in front of the gun and tells her that this is the only plan he’s got. Ryder shoots him and readies to kill another passenger when the money arrives. Walter begs him not to kill anyone else and Ryder tells him that all this death has made him want to pray. He looks at his computer and sees the value of gold has risen. His investment has just made 307 million dollars thanks to the situation he has caused in the subway. The stocks dropped and the value of gold went up like Ryder planned. Ryder looks at Ramos’s body and tells Walter that he is now a part of Plan B.
Walter has 7 minutes to get to the train station and wheel the money out to the Pelham train. Camonetti takes him to a chopper. Walter calls his wife and tells her to give his daughter advice for her softball game tomorrow just in case he doesn’t make it. She makes him promise to bring back a gallon of milk when he comes back. He jokingly responds that he can only bring a half-gallon. Camonetti tells Walter that when they see the city from the helicopter, Walter will know what he is fighting for.
Walter arrives at the train station with Camonetti and an officer slips a gun into one of his bags. Meanwhile, the Mayor identifies Ryder as Bernard Ryder Gray, a financier who had gone to jail for embezzlement. The police failed to recover a couple of million dollars, which had gone missing. The Mayor realizes that Ryder used that money to make a fortune and tells his aides to look for anyone on Wall Street who had made a large amount of money in the last hour.
As Walter wheels the money out on a wheel barrow, an officer hands him a pistol and puts it in a money bag which is marked with a tab. Ryder greets Walter at the train and calls him crazy. He points out that Walter came down to the train because he thought it would redeem him for taking the bribe. They search him for weapons and then make him drive the Pelham out. Ryder tells Camonetti that if he doesn’t make all the stoplights between the Pelham and the Cooney Island stop green, he will kill Walter. Johnson explains to Camonetti that if the Pelham hits a red light, the break system will activate. Ryder wants a clean ride to Cooney Island. Camonetti helps set up the green lights to save Walter.
At the next cross over, the train is forced to stop to make a switch. Ryder bypasses the dead man’s switch on the controls and his men and Walter get off the train and let it continue. His plan was to get off at the switch and escape through an abandoned tunnel, which would open at the Waldorff hotel. The train speeds away, but Camonetti is suspicious. Johnson tells him that the only way to drive the train is to apply pressure. Camonetti points out that, at the rate the train is going, the train will derail before it reaches Cooney Island. Taking a gamble, Camonetti activates a red light, which stops the train before it can derail, saving all the surviving passengers. Camonetti then leaves on a chopper to track down Walter, Ryder and the others.
As they carry the bags down the station, a train passes by. The marked bag gets knocked aside by the train and Walter takes a moment to take and hide the pistol in the bag. When another train arrives, Walter jumps on the other side and runs away. The others shoot at him until Ryder tells them it’s time to go. Walter hides near a transit phone, but it’s been disconnected so he can’t warn Johnson or Camonetti about the train. He takes stock of the situation and realizes he’s the only one that can stop Ryder, since he’s the only one who can identify him. He takes an alternate way and comes out of a vent in front of a taxi.
Ryder and his men part in the Waldorff. By this point, Camonetti realizes that the Waldorff is the exit point and sends all the cops he can to capture the hijackers. Emri and Bashkim walk into a police barricade and attempt to shoot their way out. They are brutally gunned down. Ryder gets in a cab, just as Walter pops out of the vent. Walter chases the taxi and steals a truck to pursue. He tells Camonetti via a police operator that Ryder is on the Manhattan Bridge. However, when Walter catches up to the taxi, Ryder is gone. Walter looks around and walks by the train tracks and sees Ryder walking down the side walkway. Walter crosses the tracks and points his gun at Ryder.
Ryder laughs when he sees Walter holding a gun on him. Ryder tells him that today; he gave Walter his life back. When Ryder sees the police approaching with their guns drawn, he tells Walter that he has to shoot him. Ryder points out that if Walter doesn’t shoot him, Ryder will put him down. Ryder starts counting and draws his gun, so Walter shoots him in self-defense. Happy that he will die and not go back to prison, Ryder tells Walter that Walter is “[his] god damn hero” as he collapses dead. Camonetti sees it happen from the chopper and waves to Walter as the police arrest him.
The Mayor greets Walter by a police van. He’s not being held and The Mayor tells Walter that the bribery situation will clear itself up since the city owes Walter a great debt. He offers Walter a ride home, but Walter wants to take the train. The Mayor thanks him and Walter goes home. On the way home he picks up a gallon of milk and smiles as he reaches his front steps.
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