Friday, June 12, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123: Quite a ride

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) • View trailer for The Taking of Pelham 123
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and considerable profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.12.09
Buy DVD: The Taking of Pelham 123 • Buy Blu-Ray: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 [Blu-ray]

The ground rule for remakes is quite simple: If the new version isn't at least as good  if not better  than the original, then what's the point?

Slavish replication isn't necessary; a solid story concept can support various interpretations, and sometimes a fresh approach is the best choice. Consider the two quite distinct versions of The Thomas Crown Affair: Each is entertaining and clever, and an excellent vehicle for the star of the moment (first Steve McQueen, then Pierce Brosnan).
Having unintentionally endeared himself to the maniac menacing a carload of
people on a hijacked subway, dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is
ordered to deliver the ransom money himself ... an obviously dangerous
assignment that our hero likes even less after a helpful cop presses a gun into
his hand.

The Taking of Pelham 123 remains one of the best 1970s crime thrillers, thanks both to scripter Peter Stone's intelligent adaptation of John Godey's crackerjack novel, and Walter Matthau's wonderfully phlegmatic performance as the dour subway transit officer whose day takes a bad turn when Robert Shaw hijacks a subway car and demands $1 million in a single hour, lest he start killing the passengers, one by one.

Back in the day, director Joseph Sargent delivered a nerve-wracking head game between Matthau and Shaw. Three decades and change later, director Tony Scott  notorious for his bombastic touch and frankly irritating smash-cut editing style  makes the story louder, nastier and much more profane.

But  and this is good news  Scott kept his more aggravating tendencies in check. The self-indulgent, self-styled auteur who made such a disconcerting visual mess out of trash such as Domino and Man on Fire has restrained himself, and with welcome results. Only the deliberately blurred opening credits reflect the behavior of "bad Tony Scott"; once the story begins, he settles down and orchestrates a first-rate thriller.

Credit also goes to screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), who deftly broadens both major characters while maintaining the unexpected  but always welcome  moments of cynical comedy that also punctuated the 1974 original.

Denzel Washington's Walter Garber is introduced as an intelligent and capable New York City subway dispatcher, but the chinks in his armor surface quickly and become ever more troubling. Why, for openers, is such an obviously over-qualified individual wasting his talents at such a mid-level job? And why so much friction with his condescending boss?

Garber, we soon learn, is flawed; for all his resourcefulness and quick thinking, he has shortcomings that didn't infect Matthau's much more morally upright interpretation of the same character. That makes Washington's Garber much more interesting, not to mention a greater acting challenge: Garber is the hero here, and always must be viewed as such.

Washington skillfully walks that fine line, and we never stop admiring Garber, despite the dark cloud hovering over his head. His transgressions, if in fact they actually exist, are understandable: He's just a guy trying to do a good job while also raising a family in economically charged times.

The question, then, is whether Garber also is opportunistic enough to view this catastrophe as a shot at redemption ... a notion that puts an entirely different psychological spin on this story's protagonist.

Similarly, Helgeland builds a great back-story for John Travolta's Ryder, the criminal mastermind who orchestrates the fiendishly clever hijacking of a subway car with close to a couple dozen passengers. (Within the same one-hour deadline, he demands $10 million ... inflation, y'know.)

Travolta chews up the scenery in grand style, as a ruthless individual who knows what he wants, knows far too much about how the opposition  the police, the subway transit authority, the mayor  are likely to react, and forever seems several moves ahead in this nail-bitingly dangerous game of chess.

Shaw remained a man of mystery in the 1974 film; Travolta's Ryder, in great contrast, leaks bits and pieces of his personality and motivations during his increasingly charged conversations with Garber via radio. The emerging portrait is equal parts cool planner, impulsive court jester and furious psychopath; despite the character's coldly vicious streak, he's undeniably engaging.

And Travolta is perfectly cast for the part, just as Washington slips so comfortably into Garber's shoes.

John Turturro delivers a deftly layered performance as Camonetti, head of the NYPD hostage negotiation team. Although we're inclined to reflexively dismiss him as a protocol jerk at first blush, Turturro subtly adjusts Camonetti's personality and behavior so that we have reason to re-evaluate him.

James Gandolfini, late of The Sopranos, is marvelous as New York's image-embattled mayor. Gandolfini precisely nails his role as an elected official also operating under a cloud, although his reaction to such stress is different: angry contempt for the incessant media spotlight that has made his transgression so obnoxiously public.

At the same time, somewhere deep in his soul, the mayor clearly still believes in the service aspect of "public service." As this story progresses, Gandolfini forever speaks ill-advisedly, and then thinks better of his initial reactions. It's a cute running gag.

Production designer Chris Seagers has great fun with Garber's environment; the big board in his "command center" has the sophistication of the NASA technology necessary to put men on the moon. It's also a great visual shortcut for much of the film's action, as the huge monitor reveals the subway car's icon frozen on an otherwise empty computer track.

Worse, still, when that icon starts to move...

The film is not without flaws. We have great hopes for a laptop Web-cam link between one of the subway hostages and his dim-bulb girlfriend, but nothing ever really comes of this development; worse yet, Helgeland makes blatant mistakes regarding the behavior of laptop computers, and the degree to which a live Web-feed would go viral in a matter of minutes.

That's a reasonably subtle mistake, though, and easily overlooked. Less forgivable is Scott's overcooked segment involving several police cars and motorcycles, as the ransom money is delivered from one end of the city to the other, in an effort to meet Ryder's demand. The, ah, obstacles that keep interfering with that race against time become just plain stupid, and the final setback is guaranteed to make you throw up your hands in disgust and mutter, "Only in the movies!"

I guess Scott just couldn't help himself. He must not feel right in the morning, if he's not able to blow something up or crash something into something else.

Fortunately, that sort of egregious misstep is isolated. For the most part, Scott properly honors Helgeland's sharp-witted script with appropriately taut direction, and Chris Lebenzon's slick editing never calls too much attention to itself.

Only one element is consistently disappointing: Harry Gregson-Williams' score. It's loud, primal and not terribly interesting, serving more as another of Scott's noisy flourishes, as opposed to building tension as a thematic underscore. David Shire's soundtrack for the 1974 original was vastly superior.

Again, though, that's a minor touch likely to be noticed only by fanboy fusspots (or music-obsessed critics). In every respect that matters, this Taking of Pelham 123 is well crafted, engagingly performed and suspensefully orchestrated.

It's a helluva ride.

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