Pelham 123 remake goes off the rails

by Glen Baity

When judginga remake, everyreviewer faces adilemma: Do I judgethis on its own merits,or compare it to theoriginal?The Taking ofPelham 123, aretelling of JosephSargent’s cult 1974caper film, makes iteasy — it sucks eitherway you look at it. Director Tony Scott (Man on Fire, TopGun) has taken a fast-paced, thoroughlyfun diversion and turned it into a heavyhandedslog. Don’t blame DenzelWashington, who does a fine job as NYCsubway dispatcher Walter Garber. Nearthe end of an otherwise normal shift on anotherwise normal day, four thick-neckedhijackers seize one of his trains. Theirleader (John Travolta), who calls himselfRyder, demands $10 million within an houror the city of New York is going to have atrain full of dead hostages on its hands.Garber has precious little time to cutthrough the red tape and deliver the cash.He has the additional task of keepingRyder calm, which proves to be its ownstruggle when the evil genius starts flyingoff the handle and plugging hostagesbefore the deadline. It’s Travolta’s role that has undergonethe most noticeable and damaging changefrom the original Pelham. In that film,Robert Shaw played a cold, laconic mainvillain. He was uninterested in chit-chat— he wanted his money, and that was that.You never knew much about him, and thatmade him both interesting and a little scary.Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (MysticRiver) has re-imagined the character asthe polar opposite, and whether you knowShaw’s portrayal or not is irrelevant.Ryder is a mercurial chatterbox, goadingGarber into conversations about socialills, justice and the hereafter, making thecore of the film less about the heist thanRyder’s gripes with society. It also turnsPelham into the umpteenth hostage flickin which criminal and negotiator, over thecourse of the ordeal, come to see a little ofthemselves in their opponent. Yawn.Part of the problem is that Travolta as abad guy is perpetually miscast. He alwaysseems to be having a great time hammingit up in movies like The Punisher andSwordfish, but he’s never believable andalmost always ends up detracting from thelarger film. Scott makes the unwise choiceof hanging Pelham on Travolta’s scenerychompingportrayal, and his movie suffers.But Travolta isn’t the only one whotook a wrong turn at the casting couch:James Gandolfini plays the craven NYCmayor who cries uncle roughly 30 secondsafter receiving Ryder’s demands. Not topigeonhole an obviously gifted actor, butanyone who watched six seasons of “TheSopranos” will have a hard time buying aspineless Tony Soprano in an expensive suit.Casting is only part of the problemwith Scott’s interpretation. He also has atendency to bog down entire sequenceswith annoying flash — for evidence, lookno further than the opening credits, scoredto an endless, arrhythmic remix of Jay-Z’s“99 Problems.” It’s one of many parts ofthe film directed like a music video —his action scenes also make liberal useof a slowed-down frame rate effect youmight remember from Metallica’s “EnterSandman” clip, a ridiculous signaturethat makes much of the action visuallyincomprehensible.On its own, the film is generic andjoyless. But having just seen the originalversion about a month ago, I also couldn’thelp noting the many things Scott doesin an attempt to differentiate his product,almost all of them negative. There was acharm to the original’s portrayal of 1970sNew York that a version set in modern daywill obviously lack. But Scott also sapsthe fun out of the command center, whichoriginally was filled with banter betweenlead Walter Matthau and his prickly coworkers.In its place is a somber, hi-techcave where glum, self-interested cityofficials try to outwit a nihilistic madman.Scott tinkers with the dynamic of theoriginal, which saw irascible but honestcops chasing a crew of money-hungryrobbers. It was simple butfun. This time around,the hero has a little dirton him, and the villainis portrayed as somekind of lost soul, whichin this day and age isboilerplate stuff. Scott’sPelham stands apartfrom its predecessor. Inthe process, it becomesindistinguishable from ahundred other cinematicstandoffs. !To comment on thisarticle, send your e-mail