Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, The (2009)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/12/09 00:00:00

"Mid-Afternoon Meathead Train"
1 stars (Sucks)

Of course, there was no earthly reason (other than the exploitation of a familiar property) for anyone to remake “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” the enormously effective 1974 adaptation of John Godey’s best-selling novel from the previous year--as anyone who has seen it recently can readily attest, it still holds up remarkably well today even after the passage of more than 35 years and the fact that people still remember it today while the previous remake (a 1999 production done for television) is now all but forgotten further attests to just how well it was done the first time around. That said, let us just assume for the record that there was indeed some burning reason to put this particular story in front of the cameras again and move on to the big question--is there a major filmmaker out there who is less suited to taking the reins of this project than Tony Scott? After all, the original film worked as well as it did because it relied on strong writing and airtight plotting to create tension and suspense instead of rapid-fire editing and flashy camera moves (the director, Joseph Sargent, was a journeyman filmmaker who worked mostly in television and whose theatrical career peaked here), the excellent performances from actors who took the same low-key approach to their work and a great finale that relied on wit, logic and nuance to wrap things up instead of an extended chase scene. As anyone who has experienced the oeuvre of Tony Scott (including such gumdrops as “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “The Fan”) knows, these are not exactly the kind of hallmarks that grace his output with regularity--the few films that he has produced over the years that someone over the age of 14 can actually watch without flinching have succeeded either because the screenplays managed to match his over-the-top style (as they did with “The Hunger” with the criminally underrated “Domino”) or because they were so intrinsically strong that even he couldn’t screw it up (as was the case with “True Romance”). Nevertheless, someone had the bright idea of bringing him on to spearhead the remake and the results are pretty much as dire as expected. The strong writing and airtight plotting used to generate tension and suspense have been replaced with rapid-fire editing and flashy camera moves. The excellent low-key performances have been swapped out by one expensive actor simply going through the motions and another going embarrassingly over-the top. And yes, there is a finale that tosses out such arcane concepts as wit, logic and nuance in order to deploy, you guessed it, an extended chase scene. Innovation--thy name is not Tony Scott.

The premise of the film remains more or less the same. On a typical weekday afternoon in New York City, a quartet of individuals led by the heavily tattooed Ryder (John Travolta) quickly and methodically hijack a busy subway train, uncouple the lead car from the rest and take the passengers on board hostage for a $10 million dollar ransom due in one hour--if the deadline is missed, one of the passengers will be killed every minute. These demands are made to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a dispatcher who quickly becomes the only person that Ryder wants to deal. As the minutes tick away, the mayor (James Gandolfini) and his subordinates try to pull the payoff together and get it to the train on time. While all of this is going on, Ryder takes an inexplicable liking to Garber and as their negotiations proceed, he begins to unwittingly reveal more and more information about himself that may help in figuring out who he really is and what his end game could possibly be, especially in regards to getting out of the tunnel with the money when every subway entrance along the way is swarming with cops.

The original “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” was released just as New York City’s reputation as a brutish urban jungle on the verge of total anarchy was reaching its peak and one of the things that made it so memorable was the way that it effortlessly tapped into those fears--in that film, the Big Apple was so rotten in so many ways that not even the flu-ridden mayor wanted to get out of bed and deal with it. Obviously, the city has changed considerably in the ensuing years and you would think that a remake that had any real sense of ambition would at least try to exploit those new concerns in the same way. Unfortunately, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have instead elected to ‘improve” the story straight into the toilet with a number of additions that only underline how much more effective the deliberately lean original truly was. For example, while the Garber character in the original was simply an ordinary transit cop doggedly doing his job, that was apparently deemed to be not interesting enough for modern audiences and so he has been given a backstory in which he is now a high-ranking Transit Authority muckety-muck who has been temporarily busted down to dispatch work after being accused of taking a bribe in regards to the purchase of some new trains. None of this is especially necessary and it becomes even more useless when the mystery of whether he did take the bribe or not is explained so early in the proceedings that the revelation has no real impact.

Similarly, the original ringleader of the hijackers (all of whom identified themselves solely as colors, a gambit that Quentin Tarantino would later famously borrow for “Reservoir Dogs”) was all the more creepily effective because we knew nothing about him other than the fact that he wanted his money and he was perfectly willing to do whatever was necessary to get it. Here, Ryder is pretty much an open book--though not an especially interesting one--and gives away so much early on that when someone finally registers what his background might entail, it comes maybe 45 minutes after everyone else in the theatre has figured it out. And while the original had a feel of genuine authenticity throughout--the locations had a real lived-in feel and the brief moments of action never went too far over-the-top for their own good--Scott can’t help but overindulge himself once again. Here, the Transit Authority control center appears to have been designed by the same guy who did Mission Control in “Armageddon,” the sequence in which the money is rushed throughout the city is so overcaffeinated that it involves no fewer than three spectacular smash-ups along the way and the whole thing gets wrapped up with a stupid chase scene that seems to have been designed solely to get the two leads in the same frame for a couple of scenes.

If there is one good thing to be said about Tony Scott, it is that he is usually able to recruit large casts of strong actors for his films and as a result, there is usually a moment or two in each one where they get to spark off of each other without being completely subsumed by the chaos around them. This time around, he has a group of actors with the right set of chops but inexplicably has no idea of what to do with them or, in one flagrant case, how to handle them. Washington, for example, turns in what has got to be the dullest and least energetic performance that he has done in years--a man who is ordinarily one of the most charismatic actors around is so lifeless here that he winds up being more or less outacted by his shirt. On the opposite end of the acting spectrum, John Travolta gives us a scenery-chewing turn that is so grotesquely overscaled and so obnoxious that it almost needs to be seen to be (dis)believed. In recent years, it has become more and more apparent that Travolta has no real desire to be directed any more, certainly not in the way that Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino did respectively in “Blow Out” and “Pulp Fiction,” and prefers to work with weaker directorial hands that will get out of the way and let him do his thing. His work here is so bad, so obnoxious and so self-indulgent that he derails the film (no pun intended) every time he opens his yap. How bad is he, you may still be asking. Okay, remember his screw-loose turns as the bad guys in “Broken Arrow” and “The Punisher”? Those performances come across as positively minimalist compared to what he does here.

In the end, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is yet another loud summer dud in a season that has already seen far too many of them and it is hard to figure out what is more embarrassing--how far this particular effort falls from the high standard set by the original or the fact that some critics have actually seen fit to give this thing a passing grade even though it stands as a perfect example of everything that is wrong with Hollywood’s recent string of soulless remakes of films that were perfectly good the first time around. I suppose that if you never got around to seeing the original at all, this new version may go down slightly easier as you won’t find yourself constantly making comparisons though you will still have the terrible performances, writing and direction to deal with throughout. However, if you are lucky enough to have seen the earlier classic, it is more than likely that you will find this version is something to be sneezed at after all.

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