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Dustin Putman

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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3  (2009)
1 Star
Directed by Tony Scott.
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman, Victor Gojcaj, Michael Rispoli, Aunjanue Ellis, Ramon Rodriguez, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, John Benjamin Hickey, Alex Kaluzhsky, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Alice Kremelberg, Katherine Sigismund, Jake Siciliano, Gary Basaraba, Tonye Patano.
2009 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence and pervasive language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 10, 2009.
Remakes are a current dubious fad of cinema—these days, it seems like every other release is one—and their ultimate outcomes are of stark varying quality. When a noteworthy older film is being messed with and updated, a little bit of audience skepticism is understandable. Sometimes there is a reason to worry. While viewers can rest assured that the new, inferior "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" will never overwrite the 1974 original starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, that still doesn't take away the reality that this is a complete bastardization of everything that was so taut, substantive and memorable in that earlier Joseph Sargent-directed thriller. Indeed, the picture, helmed by Tony Scott (2006's "Déjà Vu"), goes wrong in so many ways it is difficult to figure out where to start.

First, the plot, minimally tweaked but largely unchanged. When a tattooed, skull cap-wearing criminal by the name of Ryder (John Travolta) overtakes a New York City subway car and holds the passengers and motorman hostage in one of the underground tunnels, he and his three minions make their demands very clear to midtown rail center dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington): ten million dollars within the next hour, or a civilian will be shot to death for every minute the money is late. With time ticking down, the race is now on to locate the mayor (James Gandolfini) and pull together the appropriate funds. And who does Ryder specifically request to hand-deliver the cash? Garber, of course, whom Ryder claims has a sexy voice. "He'd be my bitch in prison," he eloquently says.

The thirty-five-year-old "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was sure-paced, rich in characterization and performance, shot with handsome no-frills grittiness, and always gripping. As directed by Tony Scott and written by Brian Helgeland (2004's "Man on Fire"), this needless redux is none of these things. The cinematography by Tobias Schliessler (2008's "Hancock") grates on the nerves even before the opening credits are over, practically every other shot a victim of a delayed shutter speed that makes the images look slightly blurred, jerky and superimposed. To make it worse, slow-motion is incorporated to the point of ridicule, the pretentiousness of Scott's direction so prevalent that it renders the story an afterthought to all the visual trickery on display. The editing, meanwhile, does not build toward apprehension or suspense so much as it just clumsily knocks out a succession of plot points. The results lack rhythm and momentum.

Characters are either broad, one-note types, or bereft of any personality whatsoever. The three villainous helpers of Ryder, for example, are so faceless they might as well be hiding behind black ski masks. The same could be said for the train hostages; by not getting to know them even a little bit, no emotional connection is formed and their fates mean nothing to us. John Travolta (2007's "Wild Hogs") unconvincingly takes on Ryder, turning the central baddie from a calm, cool, haunting figure in the original into a sexually questionable thug whose tough talk hides a weak-willed, doubting man. This alteration proves haphazard to the audience's response; instead of fearing him, we detect his underlying lack of confidence and know from the get-go that he is not going to get away with his dirty deeds. As Walter Garber, Denzel Washington (2007's "American Gangster") overplays the part of a hard-working, mildly downtrodden, socially uncomfortable blue-collar worker who, by the end, has turned into an unlikely action hero, racing across streets of traffic and wielding a gun as if it is second nature to him. Washington is usually quite reliable as an actor, but he is set adrift here, the swirling camera not stopping long enough to paint him as more than a flimsy script construct.

In this dumbed-down version, thematic layers are nonexistent—there is nary a hint of the provocative, expectations-averting race relations permeating through the '74 edition—and so are the little details—i.e. a recurring sneeze, the breakneck counting of the money, the mayor's pompous behavior, the mustached villains choosing colors as their aliases—that set it apart from the disposable. In lieu of those elements, the viewer gets a higher body count, pointless car chases, unnecessary explanations of motive and background on the antagonists' parts that ruin the ambiguity of their actions, and an unforgivable climax that is beyond enraging. When the final shot freezes on the face of a character smiling, it is both morally reprehensible and dramatically dishonest, not for a second taking into account the enormity and impact of what he has just been forced to do. "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" is good for nothing other than to contrast how the same premise can be turned into both a classic motion picture, and a very, very bad one.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman