BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 11, 2009
The career of director Tony Scott can, I think, be divided into three major phases: first, as a competent purveyor of Hollywood schlock (e.g., Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder); next, as a genre talent whose output ranged from the above-average (Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) to the very good (True Romance); and, most recently, as the technician behind crass, bludgeoning exercises in emotional manipulation and cinematic Tourettism (Man on Fire, Domino). His latest film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is evidence, alas, that he has not yet moved on to a fourth phase.
The movie is a remake, of course, of the well-remembered 1974 film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw (and a less well-remembered 1998 TV version), and one struggles to see the need for another go-round. The original film, based on a novel by John Godey, was a kind of cut-rate Dog Day Afternoon, a hostage tale that was also, perhaps primarily, a portrait of New York City in the early 1970s: the ungovernable metropolis, the Darwinian jungle, the ethnic mixing bowl. The movie’s plot was remarkably slender--a few armed men hijack a subway car and its passengers, demand a $1 million ransom, and stage a painfully obvious escape--but the lead performances were strong, and there was a cranky authenticity to the white ethnics who filled out most of the supporting roles. This is New York, the movie grouched, and if you can’t handle it, well, maybe you should haul your ass back to Westchester.
Scott’s film is utterly deracinated from any such cultural context, so he instead distracts viewers with a parade of dreary gimmicks: Overheated, overwritten dialogue; tiresome backstories appended to both principal characters; and a strikingly insipid stab at post-crash topicality. If this weren’t enough, Scott presents it all in the methamphetamine style that has characterized his recent work. Quick cuts, freeze frames, pans, zooms, spins, slo-mo, fast-mo, onscreen text that whizzes about like a biting insect--Pelham 1 2 3 is not merely a film that may induce seizures in those who are susceptible; it is a film that seems engineered to approximate the experience of a seizure for those who are not.
John Travolta plays Ryder, the trainjacker, and his portrayal is as hotheaded as Shaw’s earlier turn was ice cold. (It is awfully difficult to imagine the great Shaw ever delivering the line, “He can lick my bunghole, motherfucker!”) At the other end of a radio connection, Denzel Washington stars as Ryder’s interlocutor with the outside world, Walter Garber--though in this telling, Garber is not a subway cop, but (backstory alert!) a top transit official who has been demoted pending an investigation into criminal wrongdoing. Said wrongdoing is the rationale both for some tedious moral dilemmas (will Garber fess up in order to save an innocent hostage?) and for one of the more ham-fisted variations on the hero-and-villain-are-opposite-sides-of-the-same-coin theme in recent memory. Lest anyone miss the parallel, Scott underlines it by giving his principals neatly balanced facial hair--goatee for Washington, Fu Manchu for Travolta--and earrings--a diamond stud and tiny cross, respectively. (And yes, the latter does denote that there will some laborious dialogue about Ryder’s lapsed Catholicism.) John Turturro shows up as an FBI hostage negotiator who, in the film’s one pleasant surprise, does not turn out to be an asshole.
Brian Helgeland’s screenplay is in many ways the mirror image of the L.A. Confidential script that launched him into the big time. There, the challenge was to pare James Ellroy’s sprawling, demented novel to its neat, filmable core; here, it’s to stuff the original, understated Pelham--Tony Scott does not do understated--with as much noise and incident as it can bear. Anguished phone calls to Garber’s wife? Check. Angelic little boy whose mother’s life is threatened? Check. Breathtakingly silly twist in which Ryder’s true money-making plot is revealed? Check. Ultimately, the subway tunnels themselves aren’t big enough to contain Scott’s hyperactive lens, so Helgeland adds plenty of above-ground melodrama as well, including a climactic encounter on the Brooklyn Bridge and a demolition derby of police cruisers unsurpassed since Jake and Elwood bumper-carred their way across Illinois en route to Daley Plaza.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 plows ahead like a runaway train right up until the very end, when it throws on the brakes for a cloying conclusion in which the transgressions of the bad are punished and those of the good are erased. “Today you went to bat for the city of New York,” a grateful mayor (James Gandolfini) tells the film’s hero. “Tomorrow, New York will go to bat for you.” Fine. But who will go to bat for the American moviegoer?
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.