Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review - The Taking of Pelham 123

Even in a summer as creatively bankrupt as 2009 has been for mainstream American cinema, Tony Scott's remake of
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a particularly depressing proposition. The film essentially remains the same at plot level – a gang of criminals hijack a New York subway train and demand payment within the hour, or they'll start executing passengers – but the differences in how Scott and original director Joseph Sargent have handled this story couldn't be more marked. The 1974 film was gritty, low-key, mildly eccentric and generally logical, whereas this utterly pointless remake is loud, ugly, bloated and frequently nonsensical. Scott's film climaxes with a prolonged face-off on a bridge, with trains and traffic rushing by, and helicopters circling. The 70's version ended with a sneeze. The contemporary setting has dictated the multiplication by ten of the original's $1 million ransom, but it's Scott who has ensured everything else has been turned up to 11.

Taking the lead role previously inhabited by Walter Matthau is Scott's regular muse Denzel Washington, whose calm onscreen presence is frequently the only thing holding this director's films together. The role of Walter Garber is hardly a stretch for Washington, and he turns in a professional, if predictable performance. As in
Inside Man, an attempt is made to add complexity to Washington's character by hanging a poorly defined charge of corruption over his head, which is why he has been demoted to the subway despatch desk, pending further investigation. He's the one who notices the Pelham train making an unscheduled stop in a tunnel, and he's the one who ends up communicating with Ryder (John Travolta), the chief hijacker who tells him that a passenger will die every minute past the deadline if the city of New York hasn't come up with his cash within the hour. If Washington gives the kind of performance we've come to expect of him, then so does Travolta, which unfortunately means Ryder is over-the-top and laughably unconvincing. His characterisation is way off – do white-collar criminals usually have massive neck tattoos and boast about their prison "bitch"? – and he runs through every Hollywood villain cliché in the book; from spouting cod-philosophical monologues, to punctuating every other sentence with the word motherfucker, which is about all Brian Helgeland, who wrote the screenplay, gives Travolta to do. Given that Helgeland once won an Oscar for co-writing LA Confidential, one might hope he would come up with something better than a meandering speech about a "Lithuanian ass model," or lines like "This cab feels like a confessional," but things rarely improve beyond that level, and we end up just counting the minutes until Ryder's inevitable "I like you Garber. You know, we're just alike," pitch.

The supporting cast is populated with dependable character actors. John Turturro appears as the hostage negotiator advising Garber, James Gandolfini is the New York mayor, and Luis Guzmán is the only one of Ryder's accomplices to be recognised by name (the other two are unspeaking Eastern European types). Helgeland also adds a number of unnecessary sidetracks to the simple plot, including a teenage passenger whose laptop streams the action to his girlfriend (despite patrolling the car for an hour, none of the hijackers spot this), and a larger motive for Ryder, whose $10 million demand is a mere decoy as he plots towards a much bigger haul. None of this is remotely interesting or exciting, though. Everything in
The Taking of Pelham 123 feels generic and second hand, and Scott's hyperactive direction comes off as an attempt to distract us from the sheer pointlessness of the whole production. Scott's distinctive style has rendered some of his recent fare, such as the ghastly Domino, all but unwatchable, and while The Taking of Pelham 123 isn't as ADD-afflicted as the director's worst efforts, it's not that far off. Stuck with two characters who barely move for the duration of the film, Scott tries to keep the film visually interesting with an endlessly swirling camera, freeze-frames and on-screen captions, all set to an ear-splitting soundtrack.

It's all just noise and fury being belted out of an empty shell, and it signifies just how bereft of imagination this boring, unpleasant film is. It's hard to picture anyone thinking back fondly on
The Taking of Pelham 123 a month after seeing it, let alone thirty years, because it values spectacle and sensation over character and authenticity, it has nothing new to bring to this story, and it has no real reason to exist. "So this is just about money?" Garber asks the hijacker at one point; "Is there anything else?" Ryder screams back, and on the basis of The Taking of Pelham 123, you'd have to say no.