The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

To watch the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) and then to watch the new remake is to witness, irrefutably, the decline of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Now, the original’s director, Joseph Sargent, is no master — he also gave us Jaws: The Revenge and Goldengirl. But Sargent is a workaday director who can sometimes rise to a good script. On the other hand, Tony Scott, the director of the remake, shows here that he no longer knows what to do with a good script. The premise is pretty much the same, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland works up some sharp, pungent dialogue. Scott, however, stomps all over everything with his restless, headache-inducing Cuisinart style. This director is terrified to lose you for a split-second — either that or he gets bored very easily.

What’s funny is that the script introduces backstories for its two antagonists — New York subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) and a jeering, tattooed hijacker calling himself Ryder (John Travolta) — where there were none in the 1974 film. Schlumpy Walter Matthau was on one side, ice-cold Robert Shaw was on the other, and we knew nothing about them other than what they did and said in the film. Here, we meet Garber’s wife and we hear about Ryder’s past life as a Wall Street inside trader, among other things; none of it is really necessary.

Washington has gone on this ride with Tony Scott once before, in 1995’s much superior Crimson Tide, wherein he did the same thing he does here — act as a soothing voice of reason in counterpoint to a loudly crazy white man. Where Robert Shaw was spare and stoic, John Travolta bounces off the walls, dropping F-bombs like pocket change, with a side order of bargain-basement Hannibal Lecter when Ryder pries the truth out of Garber about why he got busted down to dispatcher. Scott and Helgeland have reworked Pelham into a battle of wills between two temperamentally opposed men; at certain points Ryder starts to need to hear Garber’s voice, bleating for his return to the mic like a baby bawling for milk.

None of this especially matters, though, because the true star of the ‘74 Pelham was New York. And though the remake was likewise filmed on location, you wouldn’t know it from the way Scott fractures the footage into tatters. Ryder’s cohorts are interchangeable; the great Luis Guzman is one of them, but he never gets anything to play. John Turturro and James Gandolfini, as a hostage negotiator and the mayor respectively, aren’t allowed to show much personality; hell, Gandolfini did more with a few minutes of screen time as an affectionately sadistic hit man in Scott’s True Romance. Tony Scott has always been a hack, but in the past, like Joseph Sargent, he knew enough to chill out and let a good screenplay steer the ship. Not any more.

The original Pelham went like a shot without sacrificing the wonderfully irate character of the city or the thrills of the story. This one goes 100mph right out of the gate and loses — no, disregards — everything that made the old classic work. I knew it within thirty seconds: the original began with a confidently cool main theme by David Shire, this one kicks off with “99 Problems” by Jay-Z. There you go: the movie tries so hard to be hip it can’t possibly be cool.

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Explore posts in the same categories: remake, thriller

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