Saturday, June 13, 2009

In Theaters: "The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)"

Well, the first thing that we have to decide, in approaching Tony Scott’s new remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, is that the 1974 original was what it was, and no reimagining is going to touch it. It was, first and foremost, of its time and place—it captured the gritty, trashy, dangerous hellhole of 1970s New York in much the same manner as The French Connection and Klute and Born to Win before it, Dog Day Afternoon and The Warriors and (to the nth degree) Taxi Driver after. It looks and feels and even (thanks to David Shire’s brassy, pounding score) sounds like The City, right then. But it was also way ahead of its time; fourteen years before Die Hard, here was the story of a brilliant, accented baddie who took hostages in a public place and whose plans to exchange them for a large sum of cash is thwarted by a dogged, determined public servant. After Die Hard made a mint and we saw its various riffs (Die Hard on a boat, on a plane, on a bus, etc.), no one bothered to make Die Hard on a subway, because it had been done a decade and a half earlier.

Pelham was first remade as a limp TV movie in 1998; it has now been updated and thoroughly reimagined by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (whose name appears on about as many good films—L.A. Confidential, Mystic River —as bad ones—The Postman, Assassins) and director Scott, a filmmaker whose stylistic flourishes have irritated others more than me. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing—for my money, the only time he’s really gone too far with his tics and affectations was Domino, which was pretty much a lousy movie any way you sliced it (so his flair felt like overcompensation). However, my stomach turned a bit as his Pelham began. The opening credit sequence utilizes blurry photography, slow and fast motion editing, and jittery camerawork—anything, it would seem, to keep us from seeing exactly what the hell is going on. Nothing terrifies Tony Scott more than a static frame. Would this finally be the movie where he went too far, even for me?

Thankfully, no. He settles down once the story gets into motion; his practice of shooting conversations like they’re action scenes can get a little wearying, and sometimes you wish he’d just stop moving the damned camera and hold a shot for more than a second and a half. But he does show some restraint in the film’s quiet, more contemplative moments, even if he can’t resist (at the big climax) shooting a conversation from a chopper.

Say what you will about his extravagancies, but once this thing gets going, it pulls us in—the storytelling is tight, the cuts are surgically precise, and it hums right along. Walter Matthau’s transit cop has been transformed into Denzel Washington’s Walter Garber (first name changed in tribute to the role’s originator), an MTA upper-management type who has been busted down to dispatcher while he’s under investigation for taking a bribe. His day at the microphone is disrupted when a group of armed thugs, led by “Ryder” (John Travolta) take over a 6 train; they move it deep into the tunnels and disconnect the front car, while Ryder tells Garber that the city has 60 minutes to come up with $10 million, or they start popping hostages.

That ticking clock—and Ryder’s clear lack of hesitation to carry out his threat—gives the picture a tremendous momentum; it spins like a top, propelling breathlessly forward and giving us a snazzy freeze-frame and on-screen text when we need a reminder of how close we are to that deadline. New York viewers will also appreciate how many of the details they get right; early in the film, when Garber is barking out an on-the-fly re-routing, the stops and trains make sense (even if on-train wi-fi access in the early scenes is still a bit of a pipe dream).

The primary divergence between Scott and Helgeland’s take and the 1974 original is in the backstories of the two main characters and the relationship forged between them. Matthau and Robert Shaw were given fairly simple characterizations (hard-working cop and bitter ex-military), and their radio communications were mostly centered on the transaction at hand. An actor who so effortlessly projects Washington’s strength and intelligence wouldn’t quite work in the Matthau role, as originally conceived; in a fine example of tailoring the role to the actor, Washington’s Garber has some flaws and real complexities. His falling-star wants to prove himself worthy here (watch the way he tentatively walks out of the command center after he’s been dismissed), and creating a situation where his character has something on the line is an ingenious way of raising the stakes.

Travolta, coming off a long line of tepid projects, is clearly having a great time playing a pulpy lowlife, though he’s just a wee bit over the top here—he’s frequently hyper-active and bug-eyed, and he’s not helped much by the fact that much of his dialogue appears to have been re-written by Bobb’e J. Thompson’s character in Role Models. But is it meant to be a tough-guy “act”? How meta is this guy supposed to be? Travolta’s got some good moments here, so I hesitate to call it a bad performance, per se—I don’t know what the hell it is, exactly. What is certain is that Washington brings out the best in him; the scenes where they level with each other, and speak plainly, have the same kind of motivational pull as that terrific first act of Man on Fire.

The expansion of their relationship comes at the cost of the distinctive characterizations for Travolta’s accomplices. The only one with any presence is Luis Guzman, and he mostly brings that with him; I’ll maintain that there is no film that can’t be made better by the introduction of Guzman in a supporting role, and I would say the same about co-star John Turturro, but even he couldn’t help Transformers. Point is, we don’t even know these guys’ names (the original film gave them color coded names—Mr. Grey, Mr. Blue, etc.—but Tarantino already recycled that in Reservoir Dogs). On the other hand, the original film’s thin characterization of the NYC mayor as sniveling, sick-bedded weakling is one of its weaker elements; Helgeland’s more active mayor is clearly modeled on Bloomberg (down to the subway riding and one dollar annual salary), and James Gandolfini is quietly terrific in the role.

Like so many popcorn directors, Scott lets his film go a good twenty minutes too long—once the clock has ticked out, he can’t maintain that energy, and the picture loses steam once it comes up out of the subway. A car chase is cut too jaggedly, to a degree that there’s no spatial relationships established and therefore no suspense. And while the final confrontation is pretty damned good, it can’t hold a candle to the gotcha brilliance of the original’s closing line. But again, I could make disparaging comparisons all day. In and of itself, as a representative of its particular genre (big studio summer action film) in its specific time and place (post-Giulliani, post-9/11, Disneyfied New York), The Taking of Pelham 123 delivers; it’s slick and fast and loud and fun to watch, and some summer nights, that’s good enough.

"The Taking of Pelham 123" is currently in theaters.

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