Usually when Hollywood trots out another unnecessary remake, I sigh and try to give the "new" film its due, even as I grow increasingly dismayed that nobody can bother to cough up an original idea. But when a contemporary crash-boom-bang director like Tony Scott takes on one of the underrated gritty little cinematic treasures of the 1970s, I fear the worst.
I'm sick of wasting space saying "the old movie was better," and I'm doubly annoyed that the endless churn of remakes forces me to keep saying it. So here goes: Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 should never have happened. The old film didn't need a facelift, and even if you're just in the market for a popcorn action film, this is a pretty middling offering.
It's an ordinary day at the control center of the New York City subway, until one train -- the 1:23 p.m. out of Pelham Bay -- inexplicably stops and decouples in the tunnels between 51st and 42nd streets. Dispatcher Randy Garber (Denzel Washington) establishes contact -- and whaddya know? It's been hijacked.
A four-man team headed by a guy named Ryder (John Travolta) is holding the train and 18 passengers. Get me $10,000,000 in one hour, Ryder demands, or the killing starts. In short order: Sniper cops are in the tunnel; the mayor is rousted from his busy day being a cynical political tool; and a hostage negotiator (John Turturro) is stomping around MTA HQ.
Garber and Ryder establish a dialogue -- and honestly, the bulk of the movie is their conversating. We learn a shocking detail about Garber (clearly stapled on by the screenwriter for "drama"), and a handful of stray facts about the mysterious train-napper. Ryder is the glib madman favored by cheap thrillers, blathering on about God, death, the stock market and ass models. He's also got a short fuse, curses a lot, and rocks a Breitling watch and cheesy neck tattoo.
Pelham has A-list stars -- and never lets you forget it. I didn't find either actor believable; instead I watched Washington do his grace-under-pressure thing and Travolta chew the scenery in bug-eyed, motor-mouth mode. (Note that this is Travolta's second mad-man-hijacks-train flick, after 1996's Broken Arrow).
But in spite of Travolta's hamming, Pelham offers the blandest batch of characters to ever be set down in the (literal) trenches of New York City. Only James Gandolfini as the mayor -- an amusing amalgam of the prickly Guiliani and the subway-riding zillionaire Bloomberg -- brought any sparkle.
Scott is one of those heavy-handed directors who foregrounds every plot detail, draining away all the intrigue. (Let's see that laptop six times! Check out the bag with the gun! Hey, look at that rat nosing around!) He's also constitutionally incapable of just leaving the camera alone. We're forever swooping, hurtling, jumping from here to there. It doesn't create tension or feed the action; it's a cheap, dated technique that's distracting. In one scene, the mayor and his aide stand on a street corner discussing fiscal policy, while Scott's camera spins dizzyingly around them.
And for a thriller, Pelham is woefully short on suspense. It really felt like two guys talking, wrapped up with a chase scene, the ending of which couldn't have been more ... uh ... pedestrian. The film doesn't even go for the genre's hackneyed tension-makers such as raging or heroic hostages; inter-gang freak-outs; or the compromised safety of its protagonist.
Nor is any narrative hay made by tapping the internecine turf battles between various "good guys": transit authority, cops, politicians and media. In all, this is a remarkably agreeable bunch of New Yorkers. Scott can load up all the expensive aerial shots of Manhattan he wants, but this film, bereft of New York's infamous color, could have happened in any city with a subway.
Rather than driving the plot with intriguing characters and organic situations, Scott leans hard on super-sonic-speed technology to drive the action: walkies, cell phones, giant computer screens and live streaming video. (You'll howl watching the criminals go to the trouble of setting up wi-fi in the tunnels. In the 1974 film, they nailed this beast down with rotary phones and shouting.)
And speaking of that earlier film, lemme just toss in a plug: Besides being a crackerjack thriller, the original Pelham was a mordant comedy that wore the city's dysfunction and crusty, hard-bitten operators like a badge of honor. ("Screw the goddamn passengers!" says one cop. "What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents -- to live forever?")
This time out, we get a flavorless remake. Though steered by admittedly likable leads, it nonetheless misses the mark on being funny, thrilling and New York.
Starts Fri., June 12.