The Taking of Pelham 123 is an old fashioned movie. It recalls an older
way of making movies, one that was briefly in vogue but now looks
incredibly silly and contrived. It harkens back to the kinds of films
that were made in 2004, or 2005. Maybe 2006. It’s the kind of movie
that people quit bothering to make after Tony Scott killed the style
dead in Domino.

Maybe I’m exagerrating, but there’s something decidedly middle of the
decade about Scott’s update of The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s all in
the style, though, not in the movie – the script itself is admirably
based on a talky, action-free premise. But the filmmaking is
hyperkinetic to the point of parody; slo-mo shots of helicopters and
quick cuts and jittery camera moves on people just sitting around
talking and lots of techno beats and swooping shots trying to
signify… something.

The entire film feels like Scott had no idea what to do with it. He
doesn’t trust any of the scenes to play out as just scenes and he
overcompensates for all of the talking – all of the good, interesting
talking! – with smash cuts and swooping cameras circling people having
the most mundane conversations. It’s like Scott had a stroke and he got
aphasia of cinema language – he doesn’t seem to understand what these
camera tricks and style tics are for.

Which is too bad, as under all the layers of MTV circa 2003 there’s a
tight, good story that’s been barely changed from the original, and
there are some good performances trying to poke their way through the
ADD editing and the Parkinsonian camerawork and the shots that are set
up to feature just a blurry pair of what I think are eyes behind a
piece of glass. The update of Pelham, which everybody says is not a
remake but a re-adaptation of the original novel, is very close to the
minor classic 70s film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. All of
the same beats are there, even if some are pumped up and X-Treme (in
the original a desperate attempt to drive a ransom across town results
in accidents and a cop car flipping over; in the new version it results
in a dozen accidents and the cop car flipping over 300 times before
falling off a bridge onto a lower roadway and causing more accidents).
The basics remain the same: a group of guys with guns take over a Coney
Island bound 6 train and demand a ransom. If they don’t get what they
want in an hour, hostages die. Their leader insists on talking to the
train dispatch guy at MTA HQ; in the original it was the icy Robert
Shaw bouncing off the schlubby Walter Matthau while this version has
the Looney Tunes maniacal John Travolta talking with the smooth-talking
Denzel Washington. The character dynamics are very different (you get
the impression Matthau’s character would have hated Washington’s
character), but the story remains the same, and it has the same tension
and excitement that comes when you get two interesting guys at odds
with each other.

Unfortunately the new version, in its modern Hollywood way, dispenses
with all the colorful characters that surrounded the leads in the
original. All of our focus in this movie is on Travolta, Washington and
slomo blur shots, so we don’t ever get into the characters of the
subway hijackers the way the original did (with brevity and humor) or
the world of the Transit Authority. It’s a major loss; keeping these
secondary characters might have actually overwhelmed Scott’s
stroke-inducing style and made this a better film.

Washington plays sort of average very well (he’s not pretending to be a
regular guy – he’s a higher up who has been demoted. You can’t dress
Denzel the way you could dress Matthau) and while I think Travolta is
wildly miscast, doing a complete cartoon character, he’s pretty good at it.
The film’s problems really come to the fore in the third act, though –
unlike Shaw’s soldier, Travolta’s just a Wall Street guy gone bad. I
can’t buy it – he’s the kind of guy who would be home monitoring the
situation, not in the trian shooting civilians. And while the
original’s hijackers really just had a good plan for how to get away
with their hijacking, the new version needs to up the ante; the ensuing
plot ‘twist’ feels more like a remake of Die Hard With a Vengeance than
anything else. The scale of the hijacking is way too small for
Travolta’s plan to be really feasible – why not continue upping the
ante by having the subway riding mayor (played by James Gandolfini and
modeled on Mayor Bloomberg) on the 6 train?

The movie also never figures out how to overcome the original’s
anti-climactic ending. That worked well in the 70s, with that 70s
style, but in a Tony Scott film it just comes across like everybody ran
out of steam. While that ending is intact (I’m speaking mostly of the
really weird ‘They’re on the train and it’s going too fast! They’re
going to die! Oh wait, the train stopped. It’s okay.’ ending), the
humor that makes the original sing is almost totally gone. Brian
Helgeland’s script does have some good lines and some good back and
forths (his stuff between Denzel and Travolta is, I think, mostly
great), but the original skirts the edge of being a comedy. A filmmaker
who was more about character could have done this script more justice;
Scott always felt like a weird fit for such a contained, immobile,
actionless story, and while I think in the end he manages to not make a
disaster he does show that he should stick to bigger, louder, dumber

Special note must be made of the gayness of Travolta’s character. Not only does he say that he would fuck Denzel Washington in prison, he’s introduced to a Jay-Z song, and the lyric playing over his first appearance: ‘I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.’ And that’s not even considering that he looks like he’s in the Village People in this movie. I don’t know what these choices mean – is this a response to the rumors about Travolta’s personal life? Is this a furthering of the dichotomy between him and Denzel’s married family man? – but it’s totally there on the screen. I leave future generations to puzzle over this; I’ll never watching this version of The Taking of Pelham 123 again.

7 out of 10