The Taking of Pelham 123
The remake machine continues to mercilessly trundle forward with Joseph Sergent’s gritty 1974 adaptation of the John Godey’s playful heist novel the latest casualty. As with any and all remakes there are two separate audiences walking into the theater; those who remember the original and maintain affection for it, and those who don’t. While the primary motive here is no doubt an exercise in making money one of the more popular excuses studios cling to these days is that of timeliness. They aren’t remaking these classic stories, but rather they’re “updating” them. Which in the mind of Tony Scott typically translates to making it louder.
After a typically Scott-esque skyline intro whereby he unloads his brand of visual jazz from a helicopter with all the patient discipline of a toddler who has been at the red bull, we’re down to the business. An armed gang lead by a man known as Ryder (Travolta with the glib cranked to the max) seize a subway train full of passengers and hold the city to ransom, with a world-weary transit worker Walter Garber (Washington) caught on the other end of the radio and forced to broker the deal. Now, here is where the “updating” sets in. Back in `74 Walter Matthau had the mic as a transit cop who might have perhaps had some experience or at least some training. Here Garber is your run of the mill Everyman, put upon with a wife nagging him to bring milk home and on the dispatch desk through a suspension pending investigation of bribery relating to train car contracts.
Way back when Ryder and the gang were simple mercenaries looking to quickly fleece the city of a cool $1 million and disappear like bad guys typically used to do. These days though that’s considered a little bland, so scripter Brian Helgeland (who has better pedigree than this) has morphed them into the kind of Wall St. rip-off artists the whole world is secretly dreaming about lynching, and subtle about it he isn’t. Jumpy like a speed freak Ryder and his crew quip with each other in trader jargon about the price of gold and light crude. He’s quick to point out that this ransom is “a spot trade, not a futures transaction”, in case anyone in the audience missed the point that these are the kind of selfish, irresponsible pricks whose similar market manipulation antics likely cost them or someone they know their job recently.
There are flashes of humor here, notably James Gandolfini’s sweaty, expedient mayor, who having “left the Giuliani suit at home” offers a “no comment” to the media and is instead grilled on his ongoing marital difficulties. But on the whole the biting, caustic wit of the original has been swept away in the frenetic rush and replaced with hollow blue collar cliche banter about how the mortgage sucks, and the ex-wife sucks, and everything sucks, etc. What’s undergone the strongest mutation though is the dynamic between Ryder and Garber. Where Garber was once the instigator of a searching probe of baiting provocations and Ryder the aloof embodiment of mechanized efficiency, here Ryder does the majority of the talking. While it’s certainly refreshing to see the ice cool Denzel play a guy all aflutter, too much of the chatter takes the form of a pointed interrogation designed to show how Garber worked his way up from the bottom rung of the transit authority and is being given an unfair deal at the hands of the city.
While Tony Scott operating on two cylinders is still better than most filmmakers firing on all four ultimately this update resides as an inferior photocopy of a superior original that while not without ideas is almost entirely without merit. The pace is brisk, and the action is frantic as we might expect from Scott. But Hengeland’s script and Travolta’s grating, pantomime histrionics drag the whole thing down to the level of a lazy indictment of the cable news bad guy of the month – the Wall St. fat-cat. This is class warfare Tony Scott style. Ryder is a guy looking to fleece the market for a buck he didn’t earn. Garber by contrast is an honest workingman who selflessly puts himself in harms way and still remembers to pick up the milk on the way home.
Starring: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli
Director: Tony Scott
Runtime: 106 Minutes