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

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/19/09 05:09:10

"A needless but enjoyable reworking."
3 stars (Just Average)

We all know there was no need to remake “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” which remains one of the best thrillers ever produced. You want to put a perfect story up on the big screen to entertain today’s audiences? Just re-release the original.

But of course nobody re-releases anything on the big screen anymore; that’s why we have DVD. And since “Pelham” has survived a reboot before (in 1998, as a TV movie), why not add it to the pile of oldies getting the treatment in today’s everything-old-is-new-again Hollywood? Looks like we’re stuck with another upgrade, its title now simplified to “The Taking of Pelham 123” to match the simplified new screenplay.

Compared to the 1974 original, the new “Pelham” is a royal mess and an exercise in modern lack of restraint, especially in the hands of director Tony Scott, who never met a movie he couldn’t ruin with an overuse of flashy camera work and ADD editing. But, surprise surprise, when viewed on its own, separate from the original film (and the John Godey novel on which both movies are based), it entertains the way it wants, as shiny, shallow popcorn fun.

Denzel Washington takes over the Walter Matthau role as Walter Garber, here reworked as a disgraced NYC public official (he’s under investigation for bribery charges) stuck working subway dispatch when a band of hijackers steal a train and take a handful of commuters hostage. The main baddie calls himself Ryder and is played by John Travolta, with the sort of results you’d expect from the guy - we just can’t buy him as a badass, no matter how many neck tattoos and sunglasses he’s sporting, and his tendency to chew every last inch of scenery leaves him contrasting too much with Washington’s more restrained, nuanced role. If Washington delivers a performance that’s better than the movie deserves (watch how he slyly handles a key sequence in which Garber is coerced into discussing the bribery charges; his forced grin and anxious stammer tell far more than the script requires), Travolta delivers one that’s precisely what the movie wants: over-the-top, self-aware, hammy to the hilt.

Unlike Robert Shaw’s relaxed, frighteningly calm Mr. Blue, Travolta’s Ryder is a ball of impulsive fury, dangerous in a whole other way, ready to kill his hostages on a whim. While this new direction makes the role somewhat interesting by removing us from what we expect from the story and making the villain’s next steps less certain, it also leaves him a chatty, bratty sort, an overwritten dolt you hope will just shut up.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland lays it on thick in trying to expand the novel into a sort of morality play. Ryder tries to appeal to Garber’s darker side, repeating a mantra about how nobody is truly innocent, which brings us, again and again, back to Garber’s bribery case, an unnecessary character expansion. Helgeland is reaching here, suggesting perhaps that Garber’s involvement in the latter half of the picture (in which we’re treated to some out-of-place - yet still rather exciting - action sequences) is the city worker’s attempt at redemption. The movie ultimately buries this notion under too many flashy diversions, when spectacle overrides all else, turning the film into a superficial thriller where character depth gets easily forgotten.

Long gone is the clever give-and-take between Matthau and the villains. This new “Pelham” reaches for a different sort of battle of wits as it makes Washington’s Garber an average joe unaccustomed to dealing with chatty hijackers. There’s an energy in seeing Washington trapped between the criminals on one end of the radio and the hostage negotiators (led by John Turturro) on the other. Scott makes the remake shallower but still vibrant, amping up the thriller angle. His showy tricks - lots of on-screen countdowns - might clutter up the joint, but they also provide a faster pace that allows us to forget it’s just a movie about two guys talking on an intercom.

That’s enough to keep it exciting even when it gets stupid, and it gets stupid quite a bit. (A subplot about an internet video link is a groaner; dumbed-down dialogue leaves everything spelled out beyond the obvious; the “surprise” about Ryder’s day job will be a shock only to those who stepped out for a bathroom break for the entire picture.) There’s solid tension and unexpected action, and the whole thing whizzes by with snappy verve. Will we remember it in thirty-five years, like we remember the original? Of course not. But we’ll enjoy the hell out of it for as long as it’s on the screen, and that’s all Scott seems to want.

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