Remake/remodel: The Taking of Pelham, 1-2-3 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2009)

Washington and Travolta: Got to do with where choo-choo go.

Well, summer is back, and apparently, so are the Seventies. Let’s put it this way: if I had been able to construct a time machine back in 1979, and had set the controls for 30 years hence, I would have looked at the marquees and assumed that either a) my experiment had failed, or b) Hollywood had completely run out of original ideas.

The latest Will Farrell vehicle, Land of the Lost is based on the 1970s TV show. Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming (and spellchecker-challenged) Inglourious Basterds is a remake of a 1978 B-movie. And now,  we have Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, a retooling of Joseph Sargent’s original 1974 action thriller of the same name.

Good morning, Mr. Blue.

In Joseph Sargent’s gritty, suspenseful 1974 thriller, Robert Shaw leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled hijackers who take control of a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears.

As city officials scramble to scare up the loot, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via 2-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and a typically rumpled and put-upon Walter Matthau as a wry Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s sharp screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) is rich in characterization; most memorable for being chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character in the film down to the smallest bit part is soaking in it).

Years later, Quentin Tarantino blatantly lifted (OK, I’ll be nice and say: “paid homage”) to one of the film’s signature gimmicks. Shaw’s gang adapts nom de plumes for their “job” based on colors (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown). The men who pull off the heist in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs are designated by their ringleader as Messrs. White, Orange, Blonde, Blue, Brown, etc. (prompting the chagrined Steve Buscemi’s immortal line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?!”)

Which now brings us to Tony Scott’s new version. Refreshing myself on the director’s credits (as listed on the Internet Movie Database), I see that I have somehow managed to overlook all of his output between Enemy of the State (1998) and this one. It wasn’t necessarily by design; I love Enemy of the State, which holds a coveted place in my Conspiracy-A-Go-Go section. It’s just that Scott historically doesn’t make the types of films that particularly grab me (The Hunger and True Romance aside). And don’t get me started on that towel-snapping military recruitment ad, Top Gun (no, seriously…don’t).

In the new film, Denzel Washington steps into Walter Matthau’s shoes as Walter Garber, with a slight shift in job description (here he is a subway dispatcher, instead of a transit cop) and John Travolta plays the heavy, simply referred to as Ryder (What? No more Mr. Blue?!).

The setup remains the same; Ryder and his henchmen hijack a subway, seizing hostages and demanding ransom. Now, the prices have gone up since 1974 (even terrorists have to adjust for inflation). Ryder wants $10 million…and one cent. As in the original film, Garber and Ryder verbally square off (via cell phone in this outing) while the ransom is assembled and the clock ticks away.

I know that this is  an action movie, but the problem with Scott’s hyper-kinetic visual style is that his goddamned camera never stops moving, even when it should. For instance, there’s a bit of exposition where the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is standing on the street having a confab with his advisors about the crisis. For the entire scene, Scott never stops spinning his camera in a dizzying 360, making you feel like you’re on a runaway merry-go-round (it damn near triggered a positional vertigo condition that I suffer on occasion).

Another issue is the lack of character development. What made the original so good that it was a great ensemble piece; even minor walk-on characters had detectable personalities. There are a few attempts; for instance, Washington’s character has hints of moral ambiguity that begins to move  the narrative in an interesting direction, but then drops it (I had expected a little more from screenwriter Brian Helgeland, because he had done such a marvelous job co-adapting L.A. Confidential).

Even the bad guys all had distinct personalities in the original film; here it’s all about keeping an over-the-top Travolta in the spotlight, while his cohorts are just your standard-issue, nondescript evil henchmen.

I realize no matter how big, dumb and loud they are, summer films are virtually critic-proof. And to be sure, Washington and Travolta are talented actors (especially with the right material) and lend box office clout to any opening weekend; but this is strictly a paycheck gig. My advice? Stand clear of the closing doors…and this movie.

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