In the mid-70s, Walter Matthau starred in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. While making a movie about criminals with a master plan was certainly not new at the time, the sarcastic and light-hearted tone of the main characters added some unexpected levity to a subject matter that would normally have been deadly serious. It is that tone, more than the crime itself, that made One Two Three a success.
Fast forward thirty years or so, and it is naturally time to remake this movie and update it to modern times. The Taking of Pelham 123 (check it out --- the numbers aren't spelled out any more...edgy!) makes a few important departures from the original film. Four armed men seize control of the New York subway train leaving Pelham station at 1:23, led by a man who will eventually identify himself as "Ryder...with a Y" (John Travolta). Ryder alerts the on-duty train dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), and demands $10 million in ransom for the hostages he has. The city of New York has one hour to comply before Ryder starts killing hostages. That's all well and good, and the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini) is willing to pay the ransom, but how does Ryder expect to escape?
I am not the biggest fan in the world of Tony Scott's direction, but the man has made some pretty good movies over the years. This might not be one of them. The movie has plenty of scenes shown in fast motion, often followed up with extremely blurry slow-motion shots. Is it because the camera is showing things passing by from the train's perspective, and then slowing down to show something important? No, I think it's done simply to look cool. And it does, it just doesn't have anything to do with the story or characters, and that irritates me. The rest of his direction is fine, I guess. I think he hasn't been bringing out the best in Denzel in their past few collaborations, but even mediocre Denzel is still pretty solid.
This is the third time Tony Scott has directed Denzel Washington, after Man on Fire and Deja Vu, and I am very surprised that they keep working together. Sure, Man on Fire was awesome, but Denzel is capable of a lot more than what Scott demands of him in these thrillers. Yes, he was fine in this movie. His character was changed significantly from the original film to add depth and moral ambiguity, and Washington conveys those differences well. It's just not a great role in a great movie. John Travolta is partly to blame for that. I hate it when Travolta plays villains. For some reason, playing morally bankrupt characters gives him a license to overact and deliver incredibly stupid lines. It all began back in Broken Arrow, and he has managed to find the most ridiculous lines in every mean character he's played since.
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This movie's winner for my "John Travolta 'Yeah...ain't it cool' Award" is:
"[Walter Garber] sounds sexy. He'd be my bitch in prison."Thanks for the insight, John. Basically, Travolta misses the mark on being sinister and instead is an over-animated egomaniac with a "cool" mustache. The supporting cast is full of really good actors, but their characters aren't too spectacular. James Gandolfini is the best of the bunch, with Luis Guzman and John Turturro playing pretty vanilla characters that are there just to propel the plot. That really disappointed me, since I like all three actors.
I would also like to call out Brian Helgeland's script. While Helgeland is capable of some pretty great work, he leans more toward bad writing. This isn't one of his better efforts. Since the movie is a remake it's easy to see what was changed in the script. Helgeland added copious amounts of profanity, unnecessary car crashes, and the typical movie stereotype of New Yorkers (you know...loud-mouthed jerks). Personally, I think the writing matches up pretty well with Scott's jittery camera work, but it's not terribly thrilling and just turning up the attitude of the bad guys doesn't fix that core problem. And what was with changing the names of the bad guys? In the original, the villains had code names, so they couldn't be identified; they went by colors, an idea later copied in Reservoir Dogs. Instead of sticking with the original smart idea (and drawing comparisons to Dogs), he came up with..."Ryder with a Y"? What, am I supposed to infer that this train rider is a rebel because he's only sometimes a vowel? Dumb, dumb, dumb. My least favorite thing about the plot is Ryder's motive. SPOILER: Ryder is already rich, and doesn't need the ransom money. He already has $2 million, and it's been invested in gold for about a decade. This is all just to make him obscenely wealthy. What a boring motive for a villain.
This isn't a bad movie, but it's just not that great. They updated a movie by removing all the charm from it, replacing it with random F-bombs and Travolta-stache. The cast is very talented, but the script isn't very interesting, which is hard to do with a heist movie. It is fast-paced and manages to keep the puzzle pieces falling slowly enough so that there is always something to learn, but it's just not enough. This is just a bland product with some good ingredients.