Monday, July 6, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

"If You Don't Need it, Leave it!"
Hip-Hopping Right off the Tracks

"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" was a 1973 best-selling novel by John Godey that was snapped up for the movies almost immediately. The resulting 1974 film by the efficient Joseph Sargent benefited from an energetically entertaining script by Peter Stone and good performances by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Stone ("1776," "Charade"), being a student of Hitchcock, understood that a good thriller is more fun if you can enjoy it, rather than identify with it, and his script bristled with a sarcastic brio that played with the rich ethnicity of New Yawk. It was filmed again for television in 1999 with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio that nodded to advances in technology a bit, but lacked energy and suspense.

There was no need for a further sequel, let alone one that would cost upwards of $100 million dollars—most of which seems to have gone to New York location taxes and helicopter rentals—but the Scott brothers evidently felt the need, this one directed by brother Tony in the same needlessly overt style that characterized his last few pictures. Scott's direction has always emphasized flash over substance, and here the film unnecessarily employs MTV cutting, streak shots, ramp-edits and cutesy sound design (a cranked up helicopter shot of a dawn New York skyline punctuates the sun blasting between skyscrapers with first two subway whooshes, than a horn) just to establish location.* This new version of "The Taking of Pelham 123"** is all over the top, set to a hip-hop beat, and it's only at the end that it's clear why Scott is being so aggressive with these techniques—he'll need them again to convey a sense of speed for a subway car supposedly out of control, but in the location shots looks soothingly like it would never leave the tracks.

And if Stone's 1974 screenplay is an example of subtlety, the script by
Brian Helgeland (and uncredited David Koepp) is a chunk of concrete, dropping so many f-bombs that it passes for humor in a script devoid of it—one of the very first examples of dialogue is a string of them in a sentence devoid of any meaning, but is merely an example of macho puffery, representing in microcosm both the script and film. Ethnicity is also made a factor in this script, but where Stone's punctured attitudes and stereotypes, in the 2009 script ethnicity defines you and can be used against you (and yet tries to imprint the message that you can "adapt"—interesting. Mixed message, and racistly judgemental...but interesting).

The performances are credible, although I've always had problems seeing
John Travolta as a bad guy (thoughtless, yes, but never deliberately malicious). Denzel Washington sinks into his role as everyman, caught in a circumstance he didn't walk to work foreseeing and doing his best to punt. James Gandolfini portrays a subway-riding mayor and the actor shrugs power. John Turturro has a smallish role as a police negotiator, and the highpoint of the film for me is a long held shot of Turturro reacting to the death of a hostage—his eyes portraying shock, and behind them simultaneously trying to pull himself out and consider his next step.

The cumulative effect is numbness and dumbness. A firefight between perps surrounded by a ring of cops turns into a multi-camera squirt-a-thon nightmare. It looks impressive, you start to wonder how none of the police shoot any of the cops opposite them. For all the attempts to update, "The Taking of Pelham 123" is a downgrade in quality, suspense and effectiveness.

Let's see, the Scott brothers managed to mess up "
The Andromeda Strain," and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," what other 70's thriller can they destroy?***

"The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009) is, generously, a cable-watcher.

* In the "Rail Control Center," digital effects are used to make the display board more like a video game with zoomed graphics both in the display, and created for dramatic uses by cutting out little windows in the film itself.

** Criminy, even the name is simplified and spoon-fed, lest anyone not "get" it.

*** That question is already answered: Ridley Scott is shooting "Robin Hood." Interesting story: the original script, called "Nottingham," focused on the Sheriff of Nottingham, caught in a struggle between a corrupt King and anarchists with the people's support. Russell Crowe was signed to star. In the interim, the script morphed into Robin being the Sheriff of Nottingham (?), now it's back to the old traditional—and umpteenth—version of "Robin Hood," and Maid Marion are the good guys and the King and Sheriff are bad guys. We've seen it before. Again, the question is: why? Probably because Hollywood can't get enough of the delicious irony of making money on a story about a guy who "steals from the rich and gives to the poor."

It's too bad—I'd have liked to have seen "Nottingham," not another retread.

No comments: