The Taking of Pelham 123
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Review by: Larry Thomas
As soon as another movie remake is released, which seems like every fifteen minutes these days, people always say “why did they remake a good movie; why not remake the bad ones and make them better?” That’s not unsound logic, but the Hollywood suits are likely thinking, “if it was bad to start with, no one went to see it; we want something that people will go see.” Not to mention if they start with a good film, then they don’t have to depend on being too creative.
Such is the case with The Taking of Pelham 123. The new version is directed by Tony Scott, brother of Ridley Scott, who has some good films to his credit: Crimson Tide, Spy Game, and Enemy of the State, to mention a few. And like any director, there is a fair share of turkeys on his resume. Before he turned to movies, Tony Scott was a commercial director in London, and his take on Pelham looks more like a commercial than a film: it’s full of the photographic effects and director’s tricks that make people pay attention to a commercial. Working for the fourth time with Denzel Washington and the first time with John Travolta, the script has been altered to make this version a star-driven, pulse-pounding action flick. So how is that different from the 1974 original?
The original film was character and plot driven. Sure, it had action, but that was not the main focus. The four train hijackers were all characters with back-stories, and played by terrific character actors like Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman. Robert Shaw, in the role Travolta now has, was terse and methodical, while Travolta is, basically, a raving loon.
Denzel Washington is again given the task of an ordinary everyman cast into extraordinary circumstances, and not only has to save the day, but straighten out his own problems with the transit authority. In the original, Walter Matthau was the transit cop who catches the case, and uses his wits to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. It was one of his best performances.
The original script was by Peter Stone, revered writer of such classic films as Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and also the Broadway and film versions of the musical 1776. It was tense, compelling, and full of great lines of dialogue. Brian Helgeland’s update does little more than change characters and situations, and update things technically for the 21st century. Helgeland’s no slouch as a writer either, being behind the keyboard for such recent class acts as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. But his work on Pelham is sloppy, with some really bad lines given to the actors.
In all honesty, I was prepared to thoroughly hate this movie…but I didn’t. It’s well made, does have some exciting action sequences, and does make good use, albeit sparsely, of James Gandolfini and John Turturro in supporting roles. But it’s basically all flash and dazzle. One critic said it was “plenty of action with no heart.” And that’s the heart of the matter: there’s really no one here to care about. Washington is always better than adequate, but this is not his best performance. Travolta careens wildly from doing some impressive work to being just another psycho on the loose. Other than Luiz Guzman as one of the hijackers, the other two are just window dressing. They only scowl and fire their automatic weapons. That might all be well and good for the video game generation, but if you want to see The Taking of Pelham 123, then you really need to watch the original first. That way, you’ll know what you’re missing when you get to the new one.