- Tony Scott
- Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini
- 121 min.
- Release Date
The days have passed when a basic thriller about hijackers and the negotiator-hero who stops them is still valid. At least, that’s the impression given by The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, director Tony Scott’s mediocre remake of the 1974 original, based on the novel by John Godey. This by-the-book adaptation incorporates a few minor twists into the material, spices up the central characters, but ultimately fails to be anything beyond your usual, unnecessary Hollywood do-over.
Continuing his long line of everymanish underdog heroes thrust into action extravaganza-type situations (see Enemy of the State, True Romance, and so on), director Tony Scott once again casts Denzel Washington as his lead. This time, in their fourth collaboration, Washington stars as Walter Garber, a New York City subway traffic controller who just-so-happens to answer the call when a group of hijackers takes over a subway train and asks for a ransom of $10 million. Ryder (John Travolta, sporting a silly handlebar mustache) leads the band of terrorists (who insist they’re not terrorists at all) via one of those hammy movie villain roles that’s pointlessly over-the-top, complete with wild unmotivated outbursts and annoyingly gratuitous uses of the F-word.
Ryder’s allotted deadline is one hour, and the befuddled Garber does his best-playing hostage negotiator to stall while The Mayor (James Gandolfini) scrambles to organize the drop-off. And for once, the mayor character isn’t harping about his upcoming election or what the voters will think. Quite the opposite. The character mentions his term is up in nine months and couldn’t care less about votes. While the complete opposite of the cliché is just as obvious as the cliché itself, it’s refreshing to know the filmmakers thought to avoid that little movie redundancy.
Coaching from behind Garber is the actual NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro), who nods and writes down notes for our hero to use to talk down the wily crook. Like every movie situation involving a prolonged discussion between negotiator and bad guy, Garber and Ryder enter into a preposterous bond where through a confessionalized conversation they realize they’re sort of alike. Within minutes of their initial banter, the script, written by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), has Ryder boasting that they’re the same and that their meeting is fate. Then Ryder prattles on about his Catholic guilt, Garber makes some admissions of his own, and the story continues like nothing happened. Meanwhile, the audience feels like they’re being pressured into buying a connection between these two men that simply isn’t there.
Comparing the remake to the original, Walter Matthau played Garber as a cop, whereas the new movie goes to great lengths to show Washington could be you or me. There’s a whole backstory about the new Garber, complete with character-defining flaws that are ultimately superficial at best. Washington’s natural everyman-ness makes up for the generic description, but even his geniality feels cheesy when the final frame freezes on him John Hughes-style. On the flipside, Robert Shaw played the head hijacker as a cold and calculating, if not robotic ex-mercenary. Travolta is allowed to develop a personality, but he’s utterly annoying during his forced rants about how The System and The Bureaucracy have given everyone a raw deal.
The scheme is sort of silly today, particularly when you consider how stupid it would be to hijack a subway train in NYC. Aren’t there better, smarter ways to amass a ransom? Wouldn’t this city, in particular, be (perhaps overly) prepared to respond to criminal terrorist actions, given its recent history? This film’s NYC has become a kinder, gentler metropolis thankfully devoid of those laughable stereotypes present in the original: The Mayor isn’t a bawling goon, the hostages aren’t a catalogue of racial profiles, and the general negativity of the urban sprawl doesn’t lace every scene. At one point, Travolta announces that NYC “is the biggest rathole in the world.” That description hasn’t been true since Jason Takes Manhattan.
Scott forgoes his typical overloaded post-modern stylization, leaving fast-paced cutting on the wayside, though the swooshing camera moves are present in surplus. There’s none of those pointless flash-jumps like in Scott’s Man on Fire, and not too many speed-ups or slow-downs, although the needless slow motion is that hazy type that looks like you’ve opened your eyes under water. Bursting onto the screen occasionally is the countdown meter; you might remember a similar device from Scott’s Spy Game, there to blatantly create suspense—except, it won’t much concern you because the film isn’t involving.
Diverting enough through the second act to keep you from checking your watch, the final act goes melodramatic to eye-rolling extremes. And with plot holes and inconsistencies so abundant they’ll drive an attentive viewer mad, the sloppiness of Helgeland’s script suggests it was the second draft, and that it probably needed a third. That the production found two bankable stars, a hit director, and known material to advertise was probably enough for producers to avoid paying for an edit or complete rewrite. So audiences are left to endure the obvious blemishes of lazy storytelling, in true Hollywood remake fashion, which no doubt they’ll find disposable.