Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)


A group of mix matched criminals, lead by the mysterious Ryder (John Travolta), hijack a New York subway train, demanding a ransom $10million. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a recently demoted dispatcher, is tasked with the job of negotiating the amount and buying time as Ryder refuses to talk to anyone else.

A few months back I popped in the original Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three which starred Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, and Martin Balsam, and I absolutely loved it. The use of non-descriptive characters, their amusing encounters, the cool attitude of the ruthless Blue (Shaw). Yet at the same tim the film dealt with corrupt politics, real police work, and internal struggles. It was generic, but perfectly so, almost so much I didn't realize I had been duped until afterwards. And despite my hate for cliche, I found myself hypocritically loving it.

So, you can imagine when I saw a remake was being made starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta I thought, hey looks like this could work. Then again, I forgot Tony Scott was directing. I don't mind style, I enjoyed Scott's over the top Man on Fire, Deja Vu was Hollywood smart and exciting, and he's shown an ability to do calm high octane thrillers in the past with Crimson Tide. Here though, Tony Scott just can't get it to work. With an over abundant use of the F-word, almost always used inexplicably, random moments of high style (such as Ryder walking down a street), the movie just feels like Scott is trying way too hard to appeal to his previous style.

Though not all of it lies on Scott. In fact, I put much of the movie's troubles at the hands of its writer, Brian Helgeland. Helgeland's had about as up and down a career as you can imagine, with everything from L.A. Confidential and Mystic River to The Order and The Postman. Unfortunately though Helgeland can't seem to find a central character focus. Denzel's character is your run of the mill family man with a questionable past, but Helgeland seems to fear going to deep into it, instead opting a cop out, keeping his moral high ground. Meanwhile Ryder has moved from calm, collected, and tough to wild, over the top, kill for any reason sociopathic, with a deep underlying moral agenda (of course). As such the conversations between these two just feel false, forced.

With Matthau's original Garber there was nothing forced about it, the relationship revolved entirely around money. The men had no secret alternative, they weren't fighting the system, they were just taking advantage of a political situation and cared for nothing more than their money. The 2009 remake tries to do this, but at each turn backs out of it in favor of that Ryder/Garber dynamic, hoping to emphasize moral underlying. Here it just doesn't have the momentum to carry the distance. When it reaches for moral questions, Pelham hits about half way. When it reaches for action, Pelham only gets about half way.

This getting only half way ends up becomming the defining factor of this remake. It never seems to achieve everything it wants, and it at the same time gets far enough away it doesn't feel like it's being weighed down by bad concepts. In his attempt to evolve the generic classic into modern times, Helgeland found himself stuck in trying to not be too much, while avoiding being too little. This is unfortunate for the viewer, because despsite some entertainment value, Pelham 123 just never feels comfortable with where its going, constantly shifting characters from good to bad and back again, hoping to find some middle ground. In this attempt to find middle ground in characters though, it only manages to find it in terms of quality as a film.

In its wish washy way, The Taking of Pelham 123 manages to only attain mediocrity at every turn. So that while it might entertain, there's not enough there to really make it recommendation worthy.

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