The Taking of Pelham 123

June, 2009, Thriller

Prolific director Tony Scott, (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Spy Game) pairs Denzel Washington and John Travolta as antagonists in this re-make of the 1974 original, which starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. That version of John Godey’s novel about the hijacking of a New York City subway was long on the intricacies of the crime and its wearying impact on the big city bureaucracy charged with protecting its citizens but mercifully short on explicit violence; this time around, scatologically obscene dialogue, blood splatter and violently destructive collisions take pride of place along with Travolta’s scenery chewing villainy. Coupled with Scott’s typical reliance on thundering musical scores, a supporting cast which provides shrewdly-observed characters in even the smallest roles and lavish production values, this glossy addition to the director’s oeuvre unapologetically appeals to the Neanderthal in all of us. Never one for nuance when overstatement is available, Scott’s Pelham conclusively proves the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s morose observation about the “dumbing down” of American culture. And yes, in a spectacularly atavistic way, this Pelham packs quite a visceral wallop.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) relies on clever brio and a numbing repetition of the word “fuck”, (employing it at various points as a noun, verb and adjective) to lace his testosterone-laden screenplay pitting wily civil servant Walter Garber (Washington) against the felonious schemes of an ex-con named Ryder (Travolta) who seeks to extort 10 million dollars from the city of New York and its mayor, played by James Gandolfini. When the mayor finds out who he’s really dealing with, the stakes grow much larger than the amount represented by the suitcases carrying all those unmarked bills…

Thanks to slick computer graphics and the invention of the portable MAC, Scott and Helgeland throw a pair of ingenious twists into the plot while keeping the octane rating  on the action sequences at near incendiary levels, but Washington’s quiet authority as a dedicated transit executive and the faithfully detailed location cinematography can’t prevent Travolta’s overheated performance and the storyline’s ultimate improbabilities from careening out of control in the climatic chase scene. What starts with genuine credibility soon degenerates into typical Hollywood action-hero silliness.

The word florid best describes Scott’s cinematic style; in his recent movies, (especially Domino and Man on Fire) the director takes such a luridly flamboyant approach to his subject matter the viewer is tempted to believe the director’s satirizing his own material and those mocking who pay to watch it. Does the film need a car wreck to juice up the proceedings? Why not 3 or 4, with a truck and various motorcycles thrown in for good measure? How about freezing a frame to convey the claustrophobic sense of speed passengers encounter in the subway system…if it works once, how about repeating it over and over again as the opening credits roll? When it comes to character development, why not have Travolta begin as an apparently complex villain but wind up a simple lunatic with a bad temper and a limited vocabulary with which to explain his motives?

There’s no questioning Scott’s skills behind the camera; he can enliven a scene with the best of them and his grasp of visual narrative is sure and confident. But his tendency to push everything beyond the credible into the realm of comic book fantasy detracts from the very gifts he brings to his work.

Memo to Scott- Pelham’s running time is a crisp 106 minutes; cut out most of the short but impossibly distracting collisions, tone down Travolta’s performance a couple of notches to make him menacing instead of freakish and re-write the asinine climatic shoot-out - - then you would have given audiences something to cheer about, instead of sending them out of the theater exhausted by your excesses.

The Verdict?  An undeniably flashy and exciting commercial effort, but seeing it may leave you vaguely embarrassed about your taste in movies.   

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