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Money Train

Reviewed By Jack Sommersby
Posted 09/01/18 13:25:11

"Snipes and Harrelson and Ruben Shine"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Off a $68 million budget (not surprising given all the elaborate stunt work), it racked up $72 million at the box office, making it profitable but not the box-office smash as was hoped.

Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson make such an ingratiating pair in the New York City action picture Money Train that they manage to salvage the threadbare material so it plays to their innate strengths by immersing themselves so far into their conventional characterizations that we’re more than willing to forgive the screenplay its shortcomings just as long as these two firing-on-all-cylinders performers keep agreeably humming along. John (Snipes) and Charlie (Harrelson) are foster brothers, one black and one white (it was John’s mother who took Charlie in when he was abandoned), and they’re cop partners as part of the decoy division of the city’s transit department – in part, it involves posing as drunken after-hours commuters so conniving low-lives can home in and try to lift their valuables while in their imitation-inebriated states. Initially, one might object to this, that they’re unconstitutionally entrapping, but they’re luring criminals into doing what they’re going to do anyway, and jailing them so they’re temporarily out of action. The movie takes us into the unheralded, unexplored world of transit police, and it’s a lot more interesting than one might think – they’re as up to their necks in weirdoes as the upside cops are, only they’re regarded as inferiors because they’re not “street” cops. In the first scene, Charlie masquerades as a white-collar professional who’s had one too many, and when two Hispanic males zero in on him to take him for his watch and wallet, John, monitoring with binoculars from upstairs, gives the a-okay for backup to move in; and when John is on the other end, with a couple of beefy women transfixed by his attractiveness, they upend him from a bench and try carrying him home for sexual purposes, when, Charlie, amusingly taking all this in, eventually, though reluctantly, intercedes. And yet with their badges off they couldn’t be any more different. John is the contemplative, financially-responsible one who lives in a spacious apartment with savings in the bank, while the impulsive, gambling-addicted Charlie lives in a dump and is always owing his creditors – he’s up to fifteen-thousand dollars in debt with a crime boss, and the man’s patience is wearing thin. Enter one Grace (Jennifer Lopez), a beautiful, no-nonsense Latino from The Bronx newly assigned to their unit. It’s her ethereal presence that drives a minor fissure between them in vying for her affections, and yet the role is written better than expected, and Lopez is a strong enough screen presence so the character escapes an easy “love interest” label. On the adversarial side, there’s the martinet of a stick-up-his-ass superior, Chief Patterson (Robert Blake), an absolute stickler for keeping his “money train” – which carries the revenue collection for the entire subway system; each bag contains no less than six-figures – on the tightest of schedules. (He’s so adamant about it that he refuses to stop the train when John and Charlie are chasing a suspect on the tracks.) Short-tempered, verbally abusive, intolerant, Patterson is a cliche, to be sure, but Blake, who was an engaging television actor back in the late seventies, gives this devil his due by giving his lines some sly inflections that manage to keep you off balance. At one point, he’s decked out in a black tuxedo, white scarf, and a top hat, looking like a bizarre cross between Al Capone and Tom Wolfe. (There’s also a secondary villain: known as the Torch, who squirts petrol into a ticket booth and threatens to ignite it if the cashier doesn’t hand over the money.) And here we thought these cops only had to contend with turnstile-jumpers!

Snipes and Harrelson play off each other a whole lot better than they did two years prior in the disappointing basketball picture White Man Can’t Jump. There, because of the uneven writing they just didn’t seem particularly comfortable, especially with the lackluster dialogue they had to deliver and Harrelson’s character being such an obnoxious heel. (Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed, penned a much better screenplay on that sport in the undervalued William Friedkin-directed Blue Chips a year later.) Here, the screenwriters, Doug Richardson, who gave Will Smith and Martin Lawrence oodles of bravura wisecracks in Bad Boys, and David Loughery, who provided Snipes some dandy one-liners in Passenger 57, do a much better job of making the central relationship feasible, and also poignant yet without ever going maudlin on us. In their insistent comic bickering, Snipes/Harrelson have some of the game camaraderie of the Mickey Rourke/Eric Roberts pairing in The Pope of Greenwich Village, with the sanest of the trouble-making duo desperately trying to knock some sense into the other. Harrelson has the showier role, and he makes Charlie pathetically human rather than just pathetic; and Snipes, playing the straight man, has a wonderful slow burn that eventually gives way to explosive exasperation – he convinces us John’s forever been toiling with Charlie’s immaturity and knows it’s probably hopeless to expect anything close to a one-eighty turnaround. (Sensing Grace might just be more interested in Charlie, John has the heart to step aside for the time being.) And it’s important we believe in the heroes’ inseparable allegiance because when a desperate, recently-fired Charlie plots to rob the money train, John having his back even at considerable risk to himself comes off as perfectly natural. Snipes and Harrelson are a match made in heaven – without this, the movie would just be a piece of well-engineered junk. They’re immeasurably helped by the solid craftsmanship of director Joseph Ruben, who scored a major trifecta in the eighties with Dreamscape and The Stepfather and True Believer, and even managed to make the second-rate stuff of Sleeping with the Enemy and The Good Son in the nineties play far better than they had any right to. Working in 2.35:1 widescreen for the first time and having an editor by the exemplary likes of De Palma regular Bill Pankow at his disposal, the action sequences are dazzlingly staged and put together with hair-trigger precision, particularly in the last fifteen minutes involving two runaway subway cars with John and Charlie having to make their way on top of one for the slightest chance of survival. Ruben has never worked on this kind of scale before, and he pulls it off with the beauty and finesse of an early Spielberg. You want to applaud all the virtuosity. Some may complain the middle section of Money Train sags a bit, and it does, but if you’re caught up in the characters as I was this won’t much matter. (Ruben also knows how to shoot talking-heads scenes with a good deal of variety. He isn’t just about pyrotechnics.) The movie, for all its formulaic aspects, is like a breath of fresh air: exciting, yes; funny, yes; but also, deeply human.

Hopefully a Blu Ray will be available someday.

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