Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, The (2009)Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 06/12/09 14:00:00
Anytime a remake is announced in Hollywood we’re often quick to throw up our arms and scream out “why?” Sometimes it has to do with the filmmakers attached where occasionally we’ll provide the benefit of the doubt when it’s a name we believe could have an interesting take on the project. Nowadays all the rage of reimagining classics (in some right) is to “go back to the book” presumably to bring back all the grit that was lost in the movie translation. Having not read John Godey’s 1973 novel of the same name, I’m honestly at a loss what could possibly be updated when Joseph Sargent’s 1974 film was your atypical gritty ‘70s thriller complete with racial dynamics in the workplace and a little political satire. Maybe someone just wanted to see how this story could be told in the modern world with cell phones, video conferencing and a central dispatching station that looks like NORAD through the ADD vision of director Tony Scott. The blunt answer? Pretty damn boring and pointless.Beginning just as the original did, a group of armed men hijack a New York subway train and demand ten million for the release of the hostages. (It was one million in 1974, but inflation is gritty.) Their leader calls himself Ryder (John Travolta) and he lets the dispatchers sweat a little before contacting them with his demands. The man on the other end of the mike is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who has been demoted temporarily from his job as a train inspector. Not a cop and certainly not trained for any sort of negotiation of this magnitude, Walter nevertheless finds himself in the thick of things when Ryder takes a liking to him.
Ten million dollars. One hour. A passenger dies every minute they go over deadline. The Mayor (James Gandolfini) has to approve the money. Detective Camonetti (John Turturro) is intrigued by the possibility that Garber himself has something to hide. His demotion stems from a bribe he may or may not have taken from the Japanese to approve one of their trains. SWAT is in position, Ryder keeps prattling on and it’s all just one big waiting game for the money being raced across midtown traffic which sparks one of the film’s more on-target queries as to why they didn’t just send a helicopter.
I wish I could say I was being purposefully vague as to conceal the intricacies and twists of this story, but honestly that’s about all there is. The film continually rests on the verge of creating suspense, but basically just rests there and then tries to invent tension in the lamest terms possible. When Garber is relieved of duty by his a-hole superior (Michael Rispoli), Ryder throws a fit and demands his reinstatement or he starts killing. This leads to some mad 60-second dash to grab Garber before he gets too far away from the building. Time is a big sticking point with Tony Scott, who thankfully resists flashing the English subtitles (while people are speaking English) that became a staple of his during Man On Fire and Domino, and instead constantly freezes the action to flash the number of minutes to the deadline. As a real-time scenario like 24, the first hour is only a few minutes off the pace, but nothing that happens during those 50 or so minutes have us worried about what happens at 3:13 PM.
A large part of the problem are the hijackers themselves. Two of them are just anonymous itchy-trigger men. A third is a squirrely little sidekick (Luis Guzman). And their leader is impossible to take seriously. Sure he constantly ignores his own deadline, offs at least one passenger early and threatens to do more, but Ryder is played by Travolta as a screaming child who acts like he’s just discovered swearing. Taking a complete 180 from Robert Shaw’s confident professional from the original who never raised his voice to a double decibel level, Travolta lets you know how serious he is by letting his evil goatee constantly yell into a CB and punctuating everything with the word “motherfucker.” Travolta is no stranger to villainous turns over the years, but even in ridiculous films like Broken Arrow and Swordfish there was a cool psychosis about him that at least showed he was having a little fun being the baddie. Travolta’s performance in Pelham is every bit as horrible as his work in Battlefield Earth and the more we find out about his character, the more baffling his choices become.
Watching 2009’s Pelham links no favorable memories to the original film, but more to Spike Lee’s superior Inside Man. There Denzel negotiated an in-progress bank robbery with the coolly collected Clive Owen and, like here, was a protagonist under investigation for a backdoor money transfer that may or may not have gone down. Seeing Washington, Turturro and Summer of Sam’s Rispoli in the same frames only accentuate you’re watching a Spike Lee joint. The difference being that Lee hit his first thriller out of the park and Scott, who has made a career out of it (and has occasionally had success with True Romance, Crimson Tide and Spy Game) seems completely lost at how to make this film fly. Quick cuts, time flashes and the occasional random car crash add nothing but to remind us we’re probably watching a Tony Scott film. Inside Man, while being a wholly effective heist thriller, also magnified some of the very same social issues of the original and vastly improved on them in the post-9/11 landscape. Pelham seemingly wants to whisk in some sort of statement about greedy bankers by developing the backstory of the Ryder character, but it keeps us asking the wrong questions. The biggest being why the ten million actually matters when the scope of his plan is more just a waiting game of panic. If its just to payoff his mercs then Ryder is either incredibly greedy or is enacting some ironic bailout plan for failed scammers from the business district? Seriously, is this some statement on what happens to white collar criminals in prison? They come out (in more ways than one) and interject sodomy jokes when they’re trying to be taken seriously? Is this how we should expect Gordon Gekko to be in the Wall Street sequel?The least we can expect from our heist thrillers is to watch a group of professionals on both sides of the versus. Pelham’s good guys are pretty neutered, just standing around watching Washington & Travolta converse. In what could have been an interesting twist on the material, the dirty-dealing history of Garber is resolved too quickly and is never formulated into a believable scenario that he may indeed be in cahoots with Ryder. I don’t know how the film justifies ending itself with a freeze-frame smile considering all the lives lost under Garber’s watch. I don’t care how clean his pardoned conscience is now. The bad guys, when not being led by rabies foam, are so perceptive as to not notice a live video conferencing happening in full view on the floor of the train. How is this element never exploited for suspense? Instead of crafting sequence around the cops ID’ing the suspects before the brave soul is discovered, the laptop is allowed to just capture everything happening with one hijacker after another allowing their picture to be taken. The whole laptop MacGuffin couldn’t be a more perfect metaphor for the failures of this remake, just sitting there capturing some identifiable people carrying guns until the battery runs out. Which in Pelham’s case is at about 2:23 PM.
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