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Action as Easy as 1 2 3

13 June 2009 840 Views One Comment author: Adam K

Remakes (or in this case, second remakes) are handicapped from the get-go.  Playtime compatriot Daniel Swensen has already outlined the pitfalls of modern updates, and the new Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 falls in line on its tracks like the titular subway train. One can see the infinitely tense possibilities of the skeletal scenario of Morton Freedgood’s (alias John Godey’s) 1973 novel on which each movie has been based: four men hijack a NYC subway car and hold its passengers hostage; the head criminal has found a way to bypass the “dead-man’s switch” fail-safe that prevents a car from moving without a driver; and internal conflicts affect the hijackers as they make their escape.

The 1974 film incarnation, directed by Joseph Sargent and starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, is a genre classic of 70s thrills and New York ambience.  It introduces the central antagonism over the radio between Transit Authority officer Garber and head hijacker Ryder, as well as highlights the diverse, feisty set of passengers and negotiators of the TA.  The new film, with Denzel Washington as the good guy and John Travolta as the bad guy, pays mere lip service to what made its forebear so successful, trading characters and a sense of place for uselessly kinetic editing and flailings at updated relevance.

Director Tony Scott, the aesthete’s Michael Bay, shows as little affinity for New York as he did for New Orleans (Déjà Vu), Mexico (Man on Fire), Washington, DC (Enemy of the State), or Los Angeles (Domino).  Instead, in his capable — if overcaffeinated — hands, every city becomes Scottsville, a bleached-out, color-filtered locale of frenetic action, rapid-fire cutting, and slow-motion visual smears.  The camera swirls endlessly around actors, whether sitting at consoles at the MTA headquarters or standing in the hijacked car.  There are worthwhile jolts and genuine creative energy to be found in his filmography, but although he is oddly perfectly suited to this generic action-thriller template, his handling of location and character is sorely lacking.  On that front, Scott can be confident simply dropping Washington into a scene and leaving it at that, trusting that the actor’s natural gravitas can hold its own, as it’s done in the past.1  Instead of Matthau’s quirky wit to fill out the hero, Pelham tacks a bribery scandal onto Washington’s past.  But it’s no use, as Washington’s residual audience good will, collecting at least since Glory, provides too much artificial sympathy to make him anything resembling a conflicted hero.  In any case, when stock is finally taken, Washington will hardly be remembered for any of his action movie performances for Scott, inferior as they are to those in Training Day and Inside Man.  A Best Actor Oscar for Training Day notwithstanding, it’s the latter movie, a 2006 New York bank heist flick directed by Spike Lee and with a similar radio dynamic between detective Denzel and hostage taker Clive Owen, that truly renders the new Pelham basically redundant in all particulars.  There’s a real feel for the multiculti mélange of New York street life, the cadence of speech, and a more deft interplay between performers in Inside Man that Tony Scott can’t match.

In opposition to Washington’s typical Everyman uprightness is John Travolta’s talky, psychopathic villain, a tattooed, crooked former equity fund manager out of prison and out for revenge.  If that description slightly baffles you, you’re probably not alone.  Credited screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and uncredited one David Koepp, unnecessarily shoehorn some Wall Street jargon and up-to-date plot developments into the otherwise lean storyline.  Since the hijacking setup is transparently the core of the movie, for Scott as well as for Helgeland, anything more than throwaway, at-the-edges gags and flourishes (which the original Pelham was so clever at) hamper the enterprise.  Also damaging, although clearly enjoying himself, is Travolta chewing the New York skyline.  His over the top ranting is good counterpoint to Washington’s quiet, put-upon moral fiber, but even his stabs at genuine ruthlessness, like the repeated epithet “motherfucker,” come off simply as a schoolyard bully trying out a new word.  A quick rundown of Travolta’s previous villain roles, including Swordfish, Broken Arrow, and (shudder) Battlefield Earth, give a good foretaste of his performance here.  Only in Face/Off does the Travolta-playing-Nicolas-Cage dimension give his bug-eyed brutality a measure of un-ironic entertainment value.  In Pelham, on the other hand, one longs for the breezy professionalism of Robert Shaw in the original.

Adrenaline junkies weaned on modern action filmmaking’s intensified continuity may get off on Scott’s patented wizardry.  In Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu, for instance, it added to the technological paranoia and time-bending scenarios, respectively, but here the fractured cutting and over-elaborate camera moves and coverage simply distract from the headlong plot.  Pelham‘s central devices are the countdown, the deadline, and the point of no return, instituted by the villain and confronted by the hero.  Instead of streamlining the film toward any dramatic instant, the director, writer, and performers substitute lazy attempts at currentness and whizbang editing, regardless of that style’s applicability to setting or theme.  Instead of careening down the tracks, Pelham bounds off the rails.

Edited by Matt Schneider.


  1. In fact, the director has provided some of Washington’s most commercial roles to date, from Crimson Tide to Déjà Vu. Man on Fire‘s central bodyguard, John Creasy, is a genuinely atypical role for Washington:  a middle-aged badass and probably one of the main precursors to Liam Neeson in Taken.

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