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Review: "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" (Scott, USA)

What do we do with Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, another version of John Godey’s book (also adapted in 1974 by Joseph Sargent), and an old-school picture of conventional urban crime in an era where such a thing is only understandable as terrorism?  Perhaps unbelievable is what it is—and nothing more so than John Travolta’s handlebar mustache, biker-tats, shaved head, and all around manically nonchalant New York City subway hijacker.  A middle-aged Caucasian urban threat no longer seems much of a threat at all, which may be why both Travolta and Denzel Washington—who is the train dispatcher on duty when Travolta takes over a Lexington Avenue local train—play disenfranchised professionals.  This isn’t a picture of modern war, but of a city: Travolta’s Wall Street pro with a gun vs. Washington’s civil servant administrator with a mic and a computer screen.  They used to be big and now they are small, and the city has lost its flavor; the result is that both characters are corrupt and both are likable, and Travolta is the criminal only because he is more reckless in his outrage at his life than Washington, who, as ever, remains a picture of contained energy.  This unnatural similarity, which runneth over and casts New York in a pitying manner, makes for a very strange picture.

Stuck in his subway car underneath Manhattan, Travolta is photographed mugshot-like, from the front and from the sides; back in the control room, Scott's camera traces a semi-circle around Washington at his dispatch console, and we see the difference between someone throwing it all away to take a stand, and a man with a stiff upper lip trying to survive in the city with his head down.  Clearly, this isn’t about crime and it isn't about terror;  it isn’t even about the heist—the action is relegated to a few dead hostages, an accidental discharge, and some bad driving on the part of the police—it’s about being fed up with the quintessential American city.  Handsome men are stealing to get rich or just make due; the city has lost all of its color and character (all we see are subway cars, MTA offices, a heavy police presence, and a couple crashed cars); everyone with a sense of humor seems to be a criminal—and so it is no mystery why Denzel is so buttoned down.  His eye-glasses do nearly as much acting as the actor himself, a prime example of a prop doing the heavy lifting: they are the glasses of a man of character and ability better than his position in life, but glasses that keep that character and ability in check.  Contrast the look of the humbled administrator to Travolta’s hilarious get-up, as if a man who comes out of prison looking like that could have ever gone into it wearing a suit and trading in the Financial District, and we have a nice pair, a very-likely and an absurdity, fighting it out first over walkie-talkies and then under the city streets.  So what is worth fighting for here?

Scott’s Pelham is relatively sedate stylistically, except for its methamphetamine-induced title sequence, which promises a post-post-modern view of a city that, as it turns out, is no longer interesting enough to justify.  Compare, if you will, the Las Vegas-inspired Domino, Mexico City-inspired Man on Fire, and New Oreleans post-Katrina-inspired Déjà Vu, and The Taking of Pelham seems an experiment in relative calm from this maestro, perhaps a mark towards the staid setting (train car, control booth), but more interesting if linked to the city and the men it has brought up.  With this quiet (not real quiet, mind you, but Tony Scott Quiet), the film—even with its laughs, which are surprising and several—is a solemn, almost old-man affair, something beleaguered and rife with dissatisfaction.  Scott’s zig-zagging sense of fantasy and extravagance is brought out not by editing or camerawork, but only in John Travolta, who seems some kind of hefty imp, an expressionist figure erupted from the psyche of button-downed Denzel.   While Scott keeps his stylistic expressionism relegated to his flattened compositions and beautiful colorwork under the streets of New York and in control room of the MTA which is dominated by a huge color abstraction of the city's subway status, Travolta gets to run his mouth in a superb combination of gleeful abandon and erratic, unmitigated rage.  He is the man Washington might want to be, in his dreams, a cackling demon of frustrated mischief come alive, birthed in the subway and struggling to emerge into daylight.  That the film's final showdown is so small and unspectacular points only towards the likelihood that the entire film is nothing but a small personal struggle for a single man.  Finally, then, our seemingly dated urban crime makes sense: apparently, in New York, personal struggles manifest themselves through a just-another-day-in-the-city, including but not limited to hijackings that expose and test frustrated residents.  Which may explain the terrific, cheese-ball freeze-frame final shot: empowered by personal heroics, honored by the mayor himself, Denzel is simply glad to be home, another day over—and he even remembered the milk!

Your review suggests my reaction to the trailer makes sense. After watching it I thought: Haven’t I seen this movie before? (I had not, in fact, seen the Sargent version at the time.) It is, after all, pointedly NOT new or out of the ordinary.
Even Scott’s “relevant calm” seems completely inconsequential and inane these days. I didn’t buy any of this film, especially Travolta’s hardcore Wall Street banker. Come on!
Christina: all recent Tony Scott trailers are incredible, and promise a great deal more than the movies ever could hope to deliver. You are right, this isn’t new or out of the ordinary, but does it need to be? Glenn: I’m not sure what this film is asking you to buy, as it doesn’t seem to ask much. As I hope I hinted, its seriousness seems to be entirely located beyond/deep-in the calm exterior of Denzel Washington’s character.
Ew, I know, let’s remake mediocre movies from the seventies into mediocre films of the 2000’s! Although I really hate when people remake already perfected films and I do believe the only films that should be remade are bad and mediocre films, but the reason to remake them isn’t to update them so we have basically the same crap movie with a new weird contemporary twist, it is to make them better. To fix all the plot holes, to flesh out the characters, to take away that annoying soundtrack, to get better actors, directors and editors. But alas, nobody wants to do that. And Tony Scott has never been a good filmmaker, he rides on the coattails of Ridley.
J.Rollins: you have it backwards, the Ridley Scott rides everyone’s coattails, and makes significantly less interesting films.
Daniel – That’s right, the film doesn’t ask much, if anything, which for me isn’t an excuse to give Scott a pass. I think most filmgoers want to be connected with the material they are watching, and this film has no point or purpose, nothing interesting to say, not even as entertainment, nothing to buy into as a piece of cinema. I didn’t locate any seriousness, especially somewhere far beyond in Washington’s one-note everyman. This film is neither new or out of the ordinary, which is okay if we don’t expect much, but it also fails as a mediocre Hollywood throwaway.
Glenn: I for one think Scott is seeing interest in places most multiplex viewers aren’t accustomed to giving its due: aesthetics. And, most specifically, post-modern aesthetics, which are far less carefully delineated than, say, classical or modernist cinematic aesthetics. Domino may be a piece of trash, but as as color, as movement, as combinations of composition, as texture, it is fascinating. Back to Pelham, Washington’s character isn’t interesting as a character in and of itself because Scott isn’t interested in melodrama or psychology. He is working a different tack, though what it is I’m still not clear (and let it be clear that I’m not a fan of his films, I’m just interested in his filmmaking). As I hoped I made clear in my piece, I think this film actually has quite a bit to say about New York, or perhaps New York in the movies. To say this film has “no point or purpose” seems an exaggeration. The opening credit sequence alone, the Jay-Z music notwithstanding, should “justify” the film’s “existence” if such a thing were required.
Danny – isn’t the opening sequence just more of the same from Scott? You could find this sequence in any of his last few films. I guess I’m just getting tired of his “post-modern” aesthetics as you astutely called them. Obviously the film has a purpose in your mind, I just couldn’t find any.
Haven’t seen the film yet, but I like your review of it. I have come to embrace Tony Scott for his Tony Scott-ness and find his recent work (Domino, Deja Vu) more interesting than the recent work of brother Ridley.
“Domino may be a piece of trash, but as as color, as movement, as combinations of composition, as texture, it is fascinating.” Word up.
I like the original far too much to care for this, I suspect. The trailer suggests they’re basically following the plot fairly closely but with a lot of fake “intensity,” where the original had real sweat and grime and pores. And Scott doing what he does — put a big vid screen in it! The original is probably my favourite Matthau flick.
(excuse my bad english) Thank You for Your very much for your interesting thoughts on this movie by one of the more interesting directors working in Hollywood today. I myself try to make sense – since yesterday, when I watched this film – of the difference between this one and the original 70ies film. For me, the most obvious difference is the loss of social differenciation (and this is something I observe in many 70ies-remakes). The 1974 film had complex negotiations on every side: in the control room, in the train, between the gangsters, there was vietnam, sexism, racism etc. In 2009 there are just two guys doing their jobs and they happen to be on opposite ends (and the people in the train do not matter at all). I think this difference is pretty obvious but the main problem is: what to do with it? I don’t think that the original was that much better (Sargent was no auteur, and Scott is one for sure and this does matter, I think; the old film may have had the more interesting script, but the new one has a more interesting visual structure – and not only because of Scotts usual expressionistic rhetorics). I think the difference between the films tell something about the loss of possibilities of Hollywood films to relate to the society in a very general sense. But then again this doesn’t mean that the Scott film is completely isolated from everything social. I think Your thoughts are very valuable in this respect.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with your comment about the cheese ball freeze frame at the end – its quite a despairing end shot as it seems to suggesting that the working class man should be satisfied or content with what his lot in life – isn’t Scott simply reinforcing the status quo about the class differences that exist in the city of New York? I do agree that Tony Scott currently is making far better films than his brother who seems to have sadly lost his way – hopefully this new Alien thing will get him back on track to critical redemption. What do you think?
Hi Omar, I think that’s a good read on the freeze-frame, I said cheese ball to refer to the fact there was no possibility we were supposed to take the image+freeze as seriously as that technique normally implies. I like your interpretation of the ending!
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The closing freeze frame is rarely serious at this late stage of the game. More often than not it has to be taken as a spoof, or ironically, because it’s such a cliche now. I guess this is what Scott was implying.
I think the note dealt at the end of this film is more subtle than a spoof or irony, but I haven’t seen the film again so I couldn’t be precise in what it’s trying to do.

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