The star-powered reboot of the seventies classic The Taking of Pelham One Two Three follows the classic hostage-flick trajectory. There’s a disgruntled man, a plan, a deadline, a dollar amount or some other prize, and a team of good guys racing against the clock to save the innocent people being held for ransom. That said, the most gripping hostage scenarios on the big screen don’t necessarily need a Travolta-Washington A-list standoff to succeed, but the ten best all count on a killer combination of claustrophobic setting, high stakes, palpable suspense, and ace special effects.
10. Air Force One (1997)
A word of advice to aspiring terrorists: When the Commander-in-Chief of the United States is a military combat hero, do not try to hijack Air Force One to force him to restore your leader to power. It won’t go well. First, President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) hides from thuggish Russian neo-Nationalists who’ve snuck aboard and seized his family. Then he picks them off one by one, defuses a bomb, and successfully snarls, “Give me back my plane,” landing One in tenth place.
9. Speed (1994)
LAPD officer Jack Traven totally foiled Howard Payne’s plans to sabotage an elevator in an office building and clear a cool $3 million for not sending the passengers inside hurtling to their doom. To retaliate, the mad bomber rigs a city bus with an explosive that will detonate if any of the passengers gets off or it slows below 50 m.p.h. We all know what happens next. There must be easier ways to make a buck that don’t involve L.A. traffic, but crazy Payne brings the pain to the number nine spot. Of course, that’s nothing compared to…
8. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
When five identically dressed men with colorful code names board a subway car and hold its passengers hostage, demanding one million bucks in one hour or one passenger will die every minute, it causes Walter Matthau’s shlubby transit cop Lt. Garber all sorts of headaches. Racing against the clock, Garber must negotiate with head gunman Mr. Blue and the mayor of the bankrupt city, with the gridlock bringing the whole public transit system to a shuddering halt. The movie’s grimy New York setting and white-knuckle suspense rate this one an eight.
7. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) decides to rob a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change operation. Only trouble is, the bank he and his pal Sal hit has very little cash and the police are on the way, so they take all the employees hostage and demand a jet to make their getaway. Then the media shows up, and the situation becomes a circus acted out on live television that can only end badly. Based on a true story and boasting Pacino chanting “ATTICA,” Dog Day Afternoon places easily in the seventh spot.
6. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Six thieves, strangers to one another, are assembled to rob a diamond store. When the cops ambush them, the crooks realize there’s a rat in their midst. Quentin Tarantino steals from the best, lifting the color-coded names from Pelham and major plot points from Hong Kong flick City on Fire, and then scrambling the chronology of the bungled burglary. But Reservoir Dogs scores a six for — what else? — the nightmarish scene in which sadistic Mr. Blonde slices off cop hostage Marvin’s ear to make him reveal the informant’s identity, while twirling around to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
5. The Negotiator (1998)
What can an expert police department negotiator do to exonerate himself when he’s being framed for embezzlement by his fellow cops? Danny Roman’s (Samuel L. Jackson) strategy is to head to Chicago Internal Affairs Division headquarters and take the inspector working his case, two assistants, and a commander hostage. Possibly corrupt colleagues surround the building, but Roman will speak only to Chris Sabian, an expert negotiator from another precinct. Sabian and Roman match wits deliciously, but it’s Paul Giamatti’s weaselly hostage who talks The Negotiator into the top five.
4. Die Hard (1988)
Pretty much immediately after New York detective John McClane arrives in Los Angeles, Hans Gruber and his band of armed terrorists crash an office Christmas party and take everybody hostage, including McClane’s wife. Bad move, bad guys! Gruber’s no dummy, but McClane uses kick-ass cat-and-mouse tactics — done barefoot, no less, and delivered with an array of excellent one-liners — to pick off his henchmen and ensure they’ll never get the million-buck bonds in the building’s basement vault. This flick did it first and better, which is why Die Hard edges out The Negotiator to come in fourth.
3. Collateral (2004)
Unlucky cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up villainous Vincent (Tom Cruise), who offers the poor guy $600 to drive him around for the night. Not bad, except Vincent is the most dangerous fare ever, a contract killer who’s come to L.A. to execute five key witnesses for a federal narcotics trial, and it’s not long before Max finds himself on the wrong end of a gun. Collateral‘s full of slick, violent action, but it’s Vincent and his hostage’s tense visit with Max’s hospitalized mother that makes this thriller top three material.
2. Inside Man (2006)
Thieves after the contents of a safe deposit box take a bank full of people hostage. A cop has to protect the captives and prevent the robbers from pulling off the perfect crime. Even after Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) realizes the robbers are stalling, he can’t figure out why. It’s an old plot, but the movie places second for what’s new: The characters. They come in every shape, size, and shade of New Yorker known to man. Best of all are the indignant hostages, both in the bank and in interviews after they’re released.
1. The Rock (1996)
Prisoner John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) is the only man ever to escape from Alcatraz. He’s sprung to help Stanley (Nic Cage), a biochemist, break into the prison, which has been taken over by renegade marines. Led by disgruntled brigadier general Hummel, the commandos have taken hostages. Unless their overlooked buddies finally get medals, they’ll launch deadly nerve gas missiles, which only Stanley can disarm, straight into the heart of San Francisco. The reasons The Rock takes first place should be self-evident: The endlessly quotable banter as Mason schools Stanley and the nonstop, crazy action that puts other hostage flicks to shame.