6/12/09

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)


I hate to be so predictably cranky (okay, so I don't really hate it), but Denzel Washington, you are no Walter Matthau, and John Travolta, you are no Robert Shaw, and Luis Guzman, you are no Martin Balsam, and James Gandolfini, you are no Lee Wallace, and Brian Helgeland, you are no Peter Stone, and, especially, Tony Scott, you are no Joseph Sargent. Yes, the original 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is infinitely superior to the new version (1 2 3), even if I translate that to just one star's difference in my official star rating.

What's missing? Just the great acting, atmosphere, suspense, plot, style, humor, wit, dialogue and fun. That said, the new one's an okay action flick, if you overlook a few serious flaws. Three stars for competence and a certain action-ride delivery, on a purely reptilian-brain level.

The films both concern the hijacking and ransom of a New York City subway car and its passengers by a relatively well-organized, knowledgable crew of desperate men. The current film updates mainly the communications technology, and adds a few plot differences which are not especially interesting or worthwhile.

Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber (the first name of the character seems to have been changed from the original to "honor" Walter Matthau), a subway executive under investigation for possible bribe-taking who is working as a car dispatcher until his name can be cleared (or not). A typical day turns ominous when the car referred to as Pelham 1 2 3 stops on the tracks, and stops answering the radio. We know it's been hijacked by John Travolta's character and his crew, but Garber finds this out only when Travolta's character, who calls himself "Ryder," takes charge of communications and relays a demand for $10 million to be delivered within the hour.

That this is sort of compelling seems incidental to the film itself. Travolta's acting is subpar at best here, far short of believable or interesting. Washington does better, but not by a lot. Tony Scott's editing is competent as usual, but pretty soulless (as usual). It seems to aspire to an immediate, cinema verité, hand-held style which is effective at times and distracting at others. And for some reason, sometimes a Google Earth-type effect is used to rush us above and around the city from scene to scene.

This turns out to be totally whimsical and inconsistent, and about as impressive and interesting as Google Earth, which is to say, impressive and interesting if you're Googling your house or other places of interest to you, but mostly pointless in the film. Some tension builds up, but no real suspense. Once in a while, the film freeze-frames, and a timer is shown. Most of the freezes turn out not to be significant or witty.

Travolta has been and can be an interesting villain, see especially the fun John Woo ride Broken Arrow, which is about as stupid as this movie, but much more fun. His work here is about on the goatee level of his work in that hacker movie with "Fish" in the title that I've never needed to see. Okay, it's at least one rung above that.

The main points, and they're fairly large, if not particularly important, which challenge credibility, have to do with the contempory updates made to the story. The hijackers figure out how to use the Internet while on the subway cars, while at the same time they knock some kid's laptop on the floor and never look at it again. And Travolta's character hopes to use his real name on E*Trade or something similar to supplement his ransom income, an actually sort of clever idea which is overwhelmed by the stupid, stupid fact of his using a real name and single account. It's analogous to a very cleverly handled sneeze in the original film, and this says a lot.

When The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is over, you feel kind of like you've seen an okay, dumb action movie, but you also feel drained, assaulted (also sort of intelligence-assaulted) and numb, and not in a very good way. I kind of wanted to like it a lot more, or hate it a lot more, but can't seem to muster either. It feels a lot like Tony Scott's 1998 semi-remake of The Conversation, Enemy of the State. A lot happens, it's relentlessly, competently portrayed. You don't really care why, and you end up by wishing Tony Scott would use his certainly considerable powers for good instead of this sort of brain-dead mediocrity.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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