I didn’t have much hope for Tony Scott’s remake* of the brilliant 1974 film “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (we don’t spell out words anymore because words are for queers) but I hoped that it would at least acknowledge the greatness of that movie and if it wanted to update the story (and I’ll admit there’s room for an update although the original still works perfectly), it would show a little love towards Joseph Sargent’s film. Maybe they would remix David Shire’s unforgettable theme from the flick and use that to open the movie.
And then they open with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and you realize that this isn’t a remake you tolerate as much as you endure it.
The basic plot is the same: four armed men take hostages on a New York City subway and while the cops and city government do what they can, it mostly rests on a civil servant to handle the situation. And this is where there’s room for the update. We’re in the post-9/11 world and real-time technology allows both new weapons and defenses in crafting the story. While writer Brian Helgeland and Scott do an admirable job in weaving in modern technology, they drop the simple stuff that made the first film such a tight thriller and give the film over to the obnoxious work of John Travolta as the film’s villain and Scott’s predictable, laughably-bad hyper-editing.
Any actor in a remake of “Pelham” should go in another direction from Robert Shaw’s cool, calculating performance as the lead villain in the original, but Travolta not only chews the scenery like it’s made out of chocolate and meth, he gives same kind of hammy performance we’ve already seen from him in “Broken Arrow”, “Face/Off”, “Swordfish”, and just about every other baddie he plays. Tonally, it matches Scott’s headache-inducing edits but two people screeching at you aren’t any better than just one person screeching at you.
Of course, Scott does what he always does: hyperactive editing regardless of the appropriate tonality as dictated by the narrative. It’s maddening and absolutely baffling how anyone could be this one-note of a filmmaker and continue to make such high-profile pictures. In a way, it’s worse than someone like Uwe Boll because at least Boll isn’t going near projects anyone cares about and while you know a Boll movie will be awful, you’re not exactly sure how it will be awful.
In the middle of it all is the great Denzel Washington. Washington is an actor far better than Scott deserves but the two clearly enjoy working together as this is their fourth collaboration and Washington manages a performance that is reminiscent of Walter Matthau’s (although they’re two different characters in two different professions; Matthau was a transit cop and Washington is a dispatcher) but ultimately stands on its own. Washington delivers shading, patience, humor, sadness, and a fully-developed character that is completely out of place in a movie where the director uses laughably bad countdown reminders of the hostage-takers’ deadline (you get the number of minutes remaining over a freeze frame with a loud “DONG” sound effect).
Most frustrating is that this remake could have been surprisingly good. In addition to the technological upgrades and the post-9/11 setting, Travolta’s character, in terms of dialogue, is an interesting villain as he’s set up as someone who manipulates the stock market and always blames others for his misdeeds. Under the terrible “thug” threads and painful acting, there’s a fresh and timely character waiting to be unleashed. And under Scott’s “look-at-me” editing, there’s a story that, with a little bit of polish, could be a tight little thriller. But Scott couldn’t care less about any of that. Instead, he provides a tedious and silly version of Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” and neglects the 1974 version of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” because that version had real performances set in a real world in a movie comprised of real editing techniques.
Rating: D plus
*Although both films are loosely based on John Godey’s novel of the same name.