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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Underground classic

Tony Scott's thriller goes off the rails

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

It's hard to understate how influential and crackerjack entertaining the original Pelham 123 was. Gritty, tightly paced and saturated with an almost documentary smell, Joseph Sargent's 1974 cat-and-mouse thriller not only influenced Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, it set the template for a movie genre we now take for granted: the siege-and-hostage thriller. Sure, the stunts and firepower have been amped up over the years, but films like Die Hard and its long list of imitators all owe their genesis to this lean, mean actioner.

Tony Scott's whipping, zooming, totally unnecessary remake brings a spastic ADD approach to what is, at its heart, an over-the-radio showdown between John Travolta's frothing villain and Denzel Washington's decent but ethically compromised MTA desk jockey. You see, Travolta seizes a subway car and demands $10 million from the city of New York. Washington is the unfortunate schmoe who answers his ransom call. An hour of stalling maneuvers and colorful monologues later, Pelham launches into standard action-movie territory as we learn how the robbers intend to escape from the subway tunnels with their ill-gotten gain.

What starts as a taut war of wits between the two charismatic actors ends up exploding into a moronic and clichéd final act filled with car crashes, generic gun duels and a climax that fizzles instead of pops. There's no getting around the fact Tony Scott's the wrong director for this, as he desperately fills the screen with his usual bag of visual tricks: freeze frames, fancy angles, fast edits and speed shifts.

Whereas the original Pelham boasted an economy of action and intriguing character actors, the remake is impatient with anyone other than its two leads. Even then, Scott seems desperate to get outside the claustrophobic underground of the film's setting to blow shit up. The everyday characters clearly bore Scott because he races back to Travolta's manic and maniacal sense of menace every chance he gets. It's the only performance in the film that matches his flamboyant style. 

And still it's all wrong. The original cast embodied the lived-in multi-ethnic microcosm of New York City, effortlessly capturing the grizzled decay of a city that refused to roll over and die. As brilliant an actor as Denzel Washington is, he just doesn't have the rumpled authenticity of Walter Matthau's washed-up transit cop to draw us in. And don't get me started on the many ways Travolta can't compare to Robert Shaw's cool-but-cruel hijacker. Only James Gandolfini feels like he could've appeared in the original, bringing more realism to his eye-rolls than any of Travolta's cocky tirades.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) tosses in a few clever exchanges and gutter wit, but his naturalistic narrative style is a bad fit for Scott's hyperkinetic need to make movies that are bombastically loud, dizzyingly fast and psychotically florid. In the end, this version of The Taking of Pelham 123 is an exercise in cinematic irrelevance, destined to inspire and influence no one.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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