Tony Scott's reinvigorated edition of "The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3" (note the numerical difference from the 1974 film's alpha spelling) is mostly unrelated to the Walter Matthau starrer. For one, it's an eye-popping extravaganza of color and vigorous cinematic ballet, for which Mr. Scott is well-renowned. But in this particular scenario starring the bowels of the subway system that is the beloved and hated New York City Transit, it's a wholesome pleasure to be visually seduced by the cinematography, and as shot by Tobias A. Schleissler "Pelham 1 2 3" is a dazzling if unfortunately dizzying spectacle. The story (penned by Brian Helgeland) severely lacks the wit, wisdom and common sense of Joseph Sargent's film of almost four decades past. Still, it's not just the performance of John Travolta, it's especially but not surprisingly the acting by Denzel Washington that anchors this new and altogether different cinematic edition of John Godey's novel, reset in contemporary post 9/11/01 New York City.
So deeply does Mr. Washington sublimate himself in Mr. Matthau's former film role as Walter Garber that any trace of the resolute and morally compelling characters the two-time Oscar winner customarily plays has vanished without a trace. There's vulnerability displayed and Mr. Washington's everyman Garber, a once-heralded, now-semi-disgraced employee demoted to subway dispatcher, is fully realized and embodied with nuance. Meanwhile, Mr. Travolta's Ryder fires off expletive-laden one-liners that electrify and induce laughter but his performance as Ryder, a man who "used to clothe and feed this city" is unlike the more caricatured villains he's played in previous films like "Broken Arrow", "Face/Off" and "Swordfish". Here, Mr. Travolta has an almost touching if not moving desperation about him despite his character's sociopathic behavior. He's angry, charismatic and less one-dimensional than you might expect. And he's crying out for help. Ryder wants to believe in someone -- he has long since dismissed New York City as an ally and has instead become the King Kong of New York's Underground. Ryder should be standing on top of the Empire State Building but instead he's mired in the subway swamp with the vermin that populate one perilous hell. Full of righteous indignation if not an off-switch, Ryder challenges Garber to free himself from a yolk of cowardice and corruption.
Some of "Pelham 1 2 3", specifically aspects of its final act, heavily echo parts of "Collateral", and no one in the wide world would be wrong for thinking of Mr. Scott's new film as Collateral East, however absurd that notion may appear. Yet Garber's transformation parallels Max Durocher's (remember Jamie Foxx's taxi driver character in "Collateral"?) as he squarely confronts Ryder to do the right thing. There's even some African-sounding drum music virtually identical to that heard during a climactic scene in Michael Mann's 2004 film. But here, at least Garber has lived out his dreams and has a family to share them with. He's older, wiser and no less humble for what life has brought him. Instead of chauffeuring individual passengers in a cab, he's masterminding and mass chauffeuring the destinations of dozens of trains and the thousands of people in them. And as in Mr. Mann's film of five years ago, Ryder blends in well with city transportation -- the Number 6 train (its red number looks like an "8") that he and his cohorts in crime have commandeered. (He says few words to his henchmen.) There are several shots where Ryder looks indistinguishable from the train -- interior shots in steely ice blues and greens -- as indistinguishable as Tom Cruise's Vincent was in his silver gray suit and white shirt riding the L.A. Metro Subway in Mr. Mann's film. (An irresistible riddle and aside: a man walks around on a New York Transit train waving a gun around. Think anybody but the most jaded New Yorker will notice?)
Sandwiched in between the battle of wills of the film's main stars are the original "Pelham" film's collateral: hostages -- passengers of the unpredictable Big Apple machinery on wheels used as pawns in Ryder's high-stakes game of underground chicken: New York City-give-me-$10-million-within-my-one-hour-deadline-or-else-they'll-be-dead-people-on-your-subway-line. That's one of three main elements from the original film that Mr. Scott stays loyal to, with another element a subtle homage to Mr. Sargent's film, which has become a cult sensation in some respects since its 1974 release. Mr. Sargent's film was peppered with sizzling dialogue and had a curmudgeonly feel to match the dryness and sardonic tone of the character of Mr. Matthau, whom as Mr. Washington revealed recently, sold him the soon-to-be NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers season tickets Mr. Matthau once owned. In any event, the dialogue of the 1974 film was its most riveting aspect. Mr. Scott's film, which opened across the U.S. and Canada today, works wickedly well with its relationship between Mr. Washington and Mr. Travolta's characters but falters elsewhere with some gargantuan holes of logic and circumstance which include the Internet, transportation, technology and other puzzling lapses of common sense which one will undoubtedly figure out while watching.
Nonetheless, there are some cheeky casting moves in this new edition, with James Gandolfini (Mr. Soprano himself) as New York City's anti-Giuliani mayor -- a character clearly devised either as an indictment of the former mayor or as an ironic counterpoint to Tony Soprano -- a villain of the past becoming a dubiously above-board leader of the present, and across the Hudson River no less, and Luis Guzman as a subway motorman who has moved from a once-respected perch in his realm. John Turturro is here as a hostage negotiator -- calm but lacking smarts. You wonder how he has managed to be in his perch as long as he has. As the Pelham train that Ryder rules during a 90-minute period becomes isolated, Mr. Scott's film in turn stagnates and its attempted resuscitation is tarnished with a subplot connected to Ryder's personal interests as well as a meaningless aside concerning a passenger and a long (or short distance) relationship. The latter re: the passenger is meant as a juxtaposition to Garber's own relationship and window on the world to connectedness but it is also a comment about the vitality and distance of the Internet age. While well-intended it inspires derision more than it does delight.
With: Michael Rispoli and Aunjanue Ellis.
"The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence and pervasive language. The film's duration is one hour and 46 minutes.
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