Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

In 1974, journeyman director Joseph Sargent pumped out the lean, gritty, hijacked-subway B-movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, with a sardonic, sarcastic Walter Matthau going up against the crisp and creepy Robert Shaw in a battle of the wills fleshed out with eccentric supporting characters and local color with the grimy and goofy New York City (back when crime and bohemianism were high, civic pride and public services were low) a character in its own right. But that was thirty-five years ago. Now director Tony Scott has updated without besting the original concept – bringing to it his trademark restless but uncurious camera – and without finding a way to make the story relevant to how the city is today. Rather, Scott has created a movie that feels disconnected from our time and drums through its plot mechanics with a grim, unsatisfying sense of déjà vu. It’s more than the fact that it’s a remake that makes the movie feel generic. The bleary, numbing cinematography works in concert with the blandly clunking score to create a sense of tiring excitement where I felt commanded to be entertained.

Denzel Washington replaces Matthau and does a fine job with a role that, as written, is less than taxing. Anyone with sufficient screen presence could have pulled it off. This is no slight against Washington, a great actor, but rather against the script by Brian Helgeland (who’s done fine work in the past). This isn’t a distinctively written character. Like most of the characters, he’s given nothing distinct or interesting to say beyond tired thriller lines that have slid out of the thriller factory like clockwork for decades. Maybe he should be grateful, for when Helgeland attempts to write something different and distinct, it ends up sounding stupid like poor John Travolta (loudly hamming it up in the Shaw role) who is forced to punctuate nearly every sentence with an ill-fitting profanity. Treated even worse are the great character actors, like Luis Guzman and John Turturro, who are given next to nothing to do, or James Gandolfini who does so well with what he’s given (the one stab at current reflection that sticks) you wish he had more, and better, things to do.

Any suspense that does arise comes from the plot itself, but the inherent suspense in the story goes unexploited. The subway car is stuck underground. How will the hijackers escape? The plot’s central thrill comes from the lack of motion. The subway is gumming up the works and Matthau/Washington main goal is not saving the day, but getting things running again. But Scott doesn’t trust stillness to raise tension, nor is he interested in exploring the mundane goal of getting the subway system running. His camera zooms and spins in a desperate attempt to whip up extra tension but instead spins further and further away from tension.

The movie works on a superficial level. It’s an involving story and exceedingly watchable performers. I was even tricked into a mildly positive response upon exiting. I wasn’t blown away but could have been heard proclaiming it “alright” and “reasonably diverting” if “not as good as the original.” Now, having settled in my mind, the memory has curdled. It has sunk in my estimation, but not by much. This is a cold, mechanical movie, heartlessly calculated, loudly screaming “aren’t you thrilled?” 

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