Prereview: The Taking of Pelham 123

Note: I have not actually seen this film. My review is based on having seen a commercial for it during last night’s TV broadcast of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 original, a passing familiarity with the careers of director Tony Scott and lead actors Denzel Washington and John Travolta, and uh… there was a third thing, what was it? Oh yeah everything Hollywood’s done for the past twenty years. Spoilers for the original film, and I’d bet anything spoilers for the new one, should you choose to read on, a course of action which I am by no means recommending.

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2009’s blockbuster reimagining of The Taking of Pelham 123 opens with a crackerjack sequence devoted to a subway hijacking carried out by a scenery-chewing John Travolta and his multi-racial but otherwise indistiguishable lackeys. Swooping cameras, jump-cut edits, and percussive sound cues give a techno-porn sheen to what essentially amounts to pulling a gun on the train conductor.

Travolta’s character differs from Robert Shaw’s icily economical ringleader from the original film in that he… oh COME ON, John, we just finished painting that scenery. Give. Give IT... giiiiiiiive… hey! When I say give you give, you bad actor, you.

The stage thus set, the film introduces us to Denzel Washington’s disgraced and/or down-and-out civil servant who drinks too much and/or blames himself for his wife’s death-by-turnstile, and just generally has backstory up the wazoo. Once a rising star in the MTA, he is now reduced to whatever’s below that on the totem pole; maybe he maintains those fucking kiosks that back everything up by asking the last person if she wants a receipt for like thirty seconds straight and punching “no” on her behalf doesn’t seem to speed things up any. Or he’s a subway poster graffiti-mustache and -penis remover, whatever, but he was the best there is at whatever it is he used to do, is the thing.

Washington, as in Inside Man and Deja Vu, continues his actorly investigation into what it means to be the smartest guy in the room, which means everyone around him is written as a total dullard, and he constantly berates them with sarcastic asides like “Oh, you think that? Wow, you think we should check the logbooks, what a brilliant thought, I’m-a call you ‘Mensa’ for the rest of the movie’s running time, and at some point in the third act I’ll have cause to say ‘you did good, Mensa,’ but you’ll still be stupid. You alright with that, Mensa?” I suspect Washington, a subtle and accomplished thespian, is not playing this hoary characterization so much as commenting on it, but I dunno, John Wayne managed to satirize onscreen masculinity without meaning to, so maybe Denzel’s really a dick, like if you were his waiter he’d be like “Oh, you’ll be my waiter this evening, will you? My own personal waiter, ain’t that something. Well I’ll tell you what, my waiter, y’know what I’d like? I’d like a Diet Coke with a lemon wedge, but I want it on the lip of the glass, not all mixed in with the soda and ice. You think you can do that for me, my waiter? Or should I call the lemon-wedge-scoring hotline because you can’t handle it? (pause) Oh you CAN can you. Well that’s great, thank you so much, my waiter, I really appreciate you going the extra mile.”

Washington’s character differs from Walter Matthau’s avuncular working-class schlub in the following ways: ALL OF THEM. Because a rumpled grump is too much like a real person and might make you buy less Pepsi.

Whereas the original was a love-letter to New York, full of recognizable characters and little details that practically count as inside jokes, Scott’s version takes place in Enemy of the Statesburgh, a generic metropolis drenched in blues and sickly yellows, populated by well-coiffed ciphers getting paid just above scale to portray the following: Good-looking young white people, buttoned-up older (35+) white people, talkative Jews, hysterical latinos, standoffish blacks who come through in the clutch, and Asians who are amusing, especially if they’re Asian Asians. The cityscape is presented exclusively through a helicopter’s-eye view, because if you gave the audience a sense of geography God knows what they’d do with it.

Travolta and Washington’s interplay is a master class of that psychological duality shit this sort of thing always boils down to these days, with the heavy actually stating outright at one point “We’re very much alike, you and I.”

Okay look Hollywood, that mirroring crap is just weak. Its nadir was arguably Red Dragon, but the callowness of Edward Norton aside, it’s just pretentious nonsense. Of course cops and robbers are alike, they’re both pursuing a narrow goal using violence as a tool. This does not count as a profoundly astute observation unless you’re nineteen and totally ‘faced. Nobody wants to say it, but the two-sides-of-the-same-coin thing sucked when Pacino and DeNiro did it in Heat, okay? Yes, Michael Mann* apologists, something sucked about Heat, deal with it. Lots, actually, but for our purposes this will suffice.

A bunch of FBI guys show up to take control of the situation but here’s the thing—-and you might want to throw a drop-cloth over your head because I’m about to BLOW YOUR MIND—-they’re paper-pushers with untested book smarts who don’t know these tunnels the way Denzel does, so they end up deferring to him. I think it was the way someone attractive died gruesomely every time they tried to call the shots that gave them confidence in his decision-making.

Anyway, after lots of scenes with the smooth-talking-but-still-there’s-pain-there Washington playing off Travolta’s charming psycopath (they’re both walking contradictions cuzza duality, see)  while barking at underlings every time he gets a chance to hold his hand over the mouthpiece because of course he’s the only one seasoned and fast enough on his feet to formulate an intricate plan like HEY MAYBE WE SHOULD TAP INTO THIS FREQUENCY, the action switches back to the hostage-takers, where we learn that things aren’t as simple as they OH GOD EWWWW. John, can you please not poop scenery where people are walking? Off to the side, man, off to the side. Takes forever to get rain-drenched glass and lens flares out of sneaker soles.

There’s a bit of clearance between the top of a subway car and the various roof-mounted obstacles which run the length of any given tunnel, so you’re okay up there as long as you remain aware of your surroundings and don’t stand up or anything. The Taking of Pelham 123 does not shy away from addressing this controversial and timely issue. The bad guy’s minion is taunting someone when he gets it so uh, that’s about hubris or whatever.

The original’s quirky, low-stakes anticlimax has been replaced by an overblown chase scene with an implied if not inventoried body count. Travolta’s cronies and Washington’s backup are whittled down until the two men (two halves of the same man?!?!!**) face off mano a mano, and all along we both knew it would come down to this, didn’t we, McHeroster? Washington eventually gains the upper hand and could kill Travolta, but he doesn’t because he’s better than that, but then Travolta pulls a gun out of an ankle holster so Washington has no choice but to kill him, out of an assumed need to slake the audience’s bloodlust self-defense.

Seriously, that might be the single basest trope there is. I mean, in Lethal Weapon, okay, but they did that in Hook for Christ’s sake. HOOK, the movie with the fat kid who fights evil by rolling. Y’know what I find cathartic? When a movie doesn’t force its villain to do something stupid and completely counter to his own narcissism just for a cheap setpiece. Seriously, if this actually happens it’ll be more egregious than usual, since

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LIKE I SAID SPOILERS

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NOT KIDDING

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Shaw kills himself in the original and it still manages to be an organic development, as it comes out of his own skewed but keen sense of self-preservation.

The end, freezeframe, cut to jittery end credits over heavy guitar riffs and record scratching. Stay through to the end, though, to see the Iron Man-like coda in which the filmmakers cut open Travolta’s stomach to retrieve matte paintings and building facades, which they need for the upcoming reboot of mid-80s Ed O’Neill vehicle Popeye Doyle, now an effects-laden thrill ride pitting Ryan Reynolds and a sass-talking Blackberry with a mind of its own against Lawrence Fishburne as a terrorist vampire.

*no relation except that we both learned all the wrong lessons from our involvement with 80s television

**?!?!!?!

(updated to fix the joke I fucked up by making fun of the wrong director in the first asterix gag, but damn it, it was funnier the other way)

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/15/09 at 12:09 PM • Permalink

Categories: MoviesMovie ReviewsNew York CityTelevision

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Wow.  I kinda didn’t want to see it before now I REALLY REALLY kinda don’t want to see it.  Thanks for sorting that out for me.

Wow, I didn’t see the movie either and I must say I’m in total agreement with your review. You nailed it 100%!

I would only add that the wry sense of humor on display in the original has been replaced with an overwrought sense of “coolness” in the remake, which are the personal stamps of both Travolta and director Tony Scott.

Well, in an attempt to rescue it from a total panning (I found the original version of the film compellingly dystopic), what’s the score like? The original was noted for its use of the ARP Odyssey synthesizer, quite groundbreaking at the time.

The fact this beastie was notoriously difficult to keep in tune over the course of a session may have added to the extremely edgy, quirky charm of the soundtrack.

/geek

I would only add that the wry sense of humor on display in the original has been replaced with an overwrought sense of “coolness” in the remake

Yeah, I forgot that the ending still hinges on the main character saying “gesundheit,” except this time he says it after an underground explosion blows every manhole for a 30-block radius sky-high.

what’s the score like?

Though I haven’t seen the film, I’m absolutely confident in stating that the score sounds like the mutant bastard offspring of James Horner and Michael Kamen going absolutely apeshit with a giant mallet in the Boston Pops’ rehearsal space. The theme song, on the other hand, is a hip-hop-tinted nu-metal number with distractingly on-the-nose lyrics and prominent use of a Beastie Boys sample, GUESS WHICH ONE.

Thanks, gil.  This was ever so much more entertaining than reading a review of the actual movie will ever be.

Gil, how do you maintain the funnyness? I’m exhausted just from trying to read it aloud to Mr. Polly through shrieks of laughter.

Do you take supplements?

You really blew my mind.

Guy who wrote the witty script? Also wrote the witty “Charade”! Now think about that one a while.

Also wrote the witty “Charade”

For a second there I thought you meant the new one was written by the guy who wrote “The Trouble with Charlie,” and I was like Jesus, dude, some things just aren’t worth looking up on IMDB.

Makes total sense, actually, ‘specially with little moments like Matthau calling the wounded undercover cop “ma’am.” And both films manage to be funny without sparing the undercurrent of dread.

Do you take supplements?

Well, I tried St. John’s Wort for a while, and it turned me deadly earnest, which sorta says all you need to know about comedy.

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