Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Two Men Boxed In: The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 In Real Time.

The Good: General idea is interesting enough, Principles act well enough
The Bad: Some bad acting, Pacing, Annoying direction, Overbearing soundtrack, Title blocks
The Basics: Obvious and average, Tony Scott's remake of The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 is visually confused and boring.

Last night was a pretty disappointing night for me at the cinema. In addition to taking in one of the worst romantic comedies I have ever seen, I made it to an advanced screening of the new John Travolta/Denzel Washington vehicle (pun intended) The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3. This is a suspense/thriller which is based upon a novel and a 1974 film by the same name. I believe that the last time I came out of a thriller or conspiracy film this underwhelmed was for Pride And Glory (reviewed here!), though this film did not have the technical issues that that one did, it was still annoying, obvious and ultimately an unpleasant waste of my time.

As is my usual disclaimer for such things, this is an evaluation of the 2009 film The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3, not the novel upon which it is based or on its quality as a remake. I have neither read the John Godey novel nor seen the 1974 film. As such, this is a rather pure viewing of the film as it was presented. And it was presented poorly by director Tony Scott.

It is an ordinary day in New York City where Walter Garber is working at his Transit Authority desk in Rail Control Center (Midtown). At 1:59 P.M., men board the Pelham 123 train and by 2 P.M., the conductor and the motorman (driver) are hostages and the train is heading into a secure section where it stops. Garber notices the change almost immediately and when the train stops and separates, he tries desperately to raise the motorman. The train is separated and when a transit police officer makes a move on one of the hostage takers, he is killed. The obvious leader, though, makes an unexpected move, which is to have the conductor release everyone on the longer half of the train and walk them all to safety. In the engine car of the subway, then, the leader takes nineteen people hostage and he opens a line of communication with Garber in Rail Control.

Garber and the man, Ryder, then begin a series of negotiations where Ryder demands $10,000,000.01 for the release of the hostages and Garber realizes almost immediately that the hostage taker means business and that he knows his way around the system. A passenger aboard the subway loses his internet access on his laptop while communicating with his terrified girlfriend, setting up future scenes when Ryder and his team set up their own wireless network. Through that, Ryder learns more about Garber and the two begin an intellectual chess match wherein the lives of innocents are placed in the balance for ten million dollars.

The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 is supposed to be tense, but unfortunately, it is packed with cliches that utterly gut the suspension of disbelief, not because they are unreal, but because anyone who has seen this type of movie before has seen exactly what Tony Scott and Brian Helgeland (the screenwriter) do in it. So, for example, when the hostage negotiator, Lieutenant Camonetti, arrives and takes over, Ryder becomes furious and demands to speak with Garber, who was sent home moments before. The viewer knows - not just because Garber is played by Denzel Washington and he has top billing - that Garber is Ryder's foil and he will be back the moment he rises from his desk. That Scott and Helgeland expect the audience to believe even for a second that Garber is being replaced is insulting to the viewer and that they played that card sets the viewer up for future disappointments in the film.

The most notable disappointment here is in the character of Garber. Garber is working in the Midtown Rail Control Center because he is under investigation for bribery; he is actually a big shot. When Ryder has a gun to a kid's head aboard the subway car, the viewer is given the full story about that investigation and it seems again like the film is mired in the conceits of the genre rather than telling a story that is truly original. The result here is that there are two minutes of exposition that are less revelatory and more boring. Like the fact that the laptop's feed would somehow be used to gain information on those in the subway car, this conceit is more or less built in to the idea and the concept that Garber is not a perfect angel is more underwhelming than in any way shocking.

Throughout the film, director Tony Scott adds annoying reminders of what time it is (the clock is counting down to 3:13 P.M., when Ryder will start killing hostages for every minute the money is late) which is utterly unnecessary because time is continually being referenced by the characters. Thirty-seven minutes from the deadline, the Mayor agrees to pay the the ten million and that sum becomes a clue into Ryder's mind and history. Scott's annoying notations on-screen about time and location are hardly enough for non-New York City dwellers to truly appreciate the effort. So, for example, as the police transit for the cash is labeled en route from a marker "Midtown Manhattan" viewers who are not fluent in The City are left in the dark because this has no relation to us with the film's other notation "42 and Vanderbilt." The notations are only worthwhile if one has a sense of scale or geography to match them and Scott does not build that into the film.

The only element that is truly clever is Ryder's real plan, which is revealed surprisingly early in the film to anyone who can read and intuit. As well, The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 does have some social commentary. Unlike a film like 15 Minutes (reviewed here!), the commentary here is far more subtle and seems to be more general about the state of economics in the world. Capitalism kills in The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 and those who play the game and try to fly right will be corrupted in order to save their families.

Ryder is given surprisingly little motivation and the viewer is left wondering what he needs the vast sums of money he sets out to get for. Characters like his assistant from the inside, Phil Ramos, are actually fleshed out more but also leave the viewer wondering why they do what they do. In other words, Ramos could easily be a man bent on revenge from the way he was dismissed from the transit authority. But he is the brains of the operation and there is not a single scene where actor Luis Guzman acts like his character is motivated by revenge.

The acting in the film is average, though John Travolta makes for a convincing bad guy here. The cute 8-year-old boy outshines the acting of the teenage George (the kid with the laptop) though. Denzel Washington is also convincing as Garber, but this is hardly one of his indispensable roles. Instead, this is pretty much the product of great casting, much like Spacey and Jackson in The Negotiator. Like that film, Washington and Travolta play off one another as the viewer awaits the inevitable scene where they meet in the real world and have a chance to play face-to-face. Their acting is good.

But it is not enough to go see this film. The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3 is one long stretch of boredom punctuated by pointless car chases and witless characters who ask the questions engaged viewers ask about ten minutes after the viewer does. This is an easy film to pass by during Summer Blockbuster Season and only suitable for wasting a rainy day on DVD.

For other works written by Brien Helgeland, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Mystic River
L.A. Confidential


For other movie reviews, check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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