This is Do Not Get on That Train week. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is currently available on instant Netflix.
AVOID: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) – Rated R for graphic language and violence.
“When a group of hijackers led by criminal mastermind Ryder (John Travolta) take the passengers aboard a New York subway train hostage and demand a kings ransom, it is up to subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) to bring them down. Directed by Tony Scott (Man on Fire), this action thriller — an update of the 1974 film from Joseph Sargent — also stars James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luis Guzmán and Michael Rispoli.”
“Life is simple now. They just have to do what I say.” – one of the few printable lines in the movie
Well I wanted to like this movie but I simply cannot. I also feel somewhat of a hypocrite for recommending a Steven Seagal film yesterday and panning a Denzel Washington film today.
Denzel Washington is a wonderful everyman. To me he represents a more recent Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, or Gregory Peck (or for those of you who are color conscious a modern Sidney Poitier). He handles serious roles with dignity while managing a lighter touch on the material where it is required.
While normally playing the hero, his tour de force performance in Training Day won him his second Oscar. He had previously won a Best Supporting Actor nod for Glory as well as nominations for The Hurricane, Malcolm X, and Freedom.
Why oh why then does he keep working with director Tony Scott?
The Scott brothers are one of my cinematic love-hate relationships. Ridley Scott, in my opinion, is one of the best directors working today. He has directed four of my all-time favorite movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down and many other wonderful yet flawed films (The Duellists, Thelma & Louise, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Rain).
His brother Tony consistently takes good material and good actors and trashes both with his signature visual stylings. It is not that most of his films are awful – they actually are not – it is that while watching them you cannot help but think how much better the movie would be if someone else had made it.
Hysterically most of what is wrong with a Tony Scott film occurs literally within the first minute here. We approach the Columbia logo as through a tunnel and then we have a panoramic view of New York while a nice subway motif sets up the credits. Not content with that good start, Scott abandons it seconds later (seriously Scott has THE worst case of ADD of any Hollywood director) for a frenetic time-lapse montage of people swarming over the city streets with no shot lasting longer than a few seconds.
The first words heard are from a song and they are “got 99 problems but a b@tch aint one” as we pan over Travolta with a cheesy moustache, cross earring and neck tattoo of a gun and the words “from my cold dead hands”. Is that supposed to be ironic? Apparently at that point the camera was just too steady so then we get some extra blurry and juddery camerawork, again with no shot lasting longer than a few seconds.
The F bomb – practically a Tony Scott trademark – is dropped in the song before the credits are done and still we are only in the first minute of the movie. The first line in the movie is “So” and the second line contains four F bombs. How old is Tony Scott? 12? Or did writer Brian Helgeland actually write that second line.
Please understand that I have nothing against profanity in films. South Park is one of the most profane films of all time and is absolutely hysterical. Where would John McClane (Bruce Willis) be without the ending to Yippie-Kai-yay? There are tons of places where profanity can appropriately be applied but using it because you cannot actually think of anything better to say just makes you look like an idiot.
I think it is hysterical that now that PG-13 films are allowed to throw in one non-sexual reference F-bomb that almost all of them do. Why? Because it is part of the business formula.
The 1974 original was a classic urban thriller. Walter Matthau was excellent as the beleaguered Garber and Robert Shaw was ice cool as Blue (Ryder in the remake). Blue had to deal with a worried cohort and keep a psychopathic one in check in addition to Garber. The bad guys were all color coded so that their real names were not used. Tarantino found this so cool that he borrowed it for Reservoir Dogs.
This remake jettisons the color names of course. Not only that but in the original, all of the perpetrators are disguised. None of the perpetrators in the remake are disguised
John Travolta plays Ryder, our hijacker. Unfortunately he has only one speed – full bore – so instead of a man with a plan, he just comes across as a complete psychopath. He has given so many good nuanced performances in the past but lately he has delved into the realm of self-parody.
Tony Scott also throws in two very good character actors, Luis Guzman and James Gandolfini, in pretty substantial parts. They do well though the part for Guzman is woefully underwritten. Though Guzman should not complain as the other two hijackers are complete ciphers.
At one point Garber (Denzel) says out loud to himself “Jerry Pollard. I know Jerry Pollard. I went to Motormans school with Jerry Pollard”. Really does anyone actually talk that way? Was there no better way to convey this information?
The modern updates to the script are a mixed bag. One of the hostages having a laptop is certainly reasonable, though the way it is used becomes a bit laughable. They do have a clever stock market subplot that ultimately goes nowhere.
If you must watch this film, I highly recommend some dramamine. Scott loves to pan the camera for a few seconds and then jump to another character, pan for a few seconds and then jump back. I swear some of the later subway scenes were made for an anti-drug video.
The original script sets up a wonderful, tight ending and a great epilogue. Tony Scott and Brian Helgeland jettison this in favor of a bombastic over-the-top ending.
In the original the mayor has to make a few decisions such as approving the ransom – quite reasonable. Here the mayor actually talks to Ryder. When was the last time that you heard of a mayor being involved directly in hostage negotiations?
Scott continuously updates us on how much time is left but it quickly becomes comical, particularly as we are not advancing in time at all. I did like how one of the characters mentioned that they should have used a helicopter to deliver the money – thus sort of covering a plothole.
The part that really gets me is that every single good point in this movie (with the exception of Turturro below) was done better in the original and every change (except the stock market subplot sort of) that Scott and Helgeland made in the story made it worse.
The worst change is towards the end where Ryder does something completely and utterly nonsensical. I will not mention what it was to avoid spoilers but from that point on the movie went from being annoying to being monumentally stupid.
Avoid this movie and if you do not mind 70s films, put the original in your Netflix queue.
People Watch: John Turturro does a stellar job playing Camonetti, a hostage negotiator. He does a good job here but his performances for the Coen brothers are much better, particularly Jesus in the Big Lebowski and Bernie Bernbaum in Millers Crossing.