Saturday Night At The Movies
By Dennis Hartley
Denzel and Travolta: Got to do with where choo-choo go.
Well, summer is back, and apparently, so are the Seventies. Let’s put it this way: if I had been able to construct a time machine back in 1979, and had set the controls for 30 years hence, I would have looked around at the theatre marquees and assumed that either a) my experiment had failed, or b) Hollywood had completely run out of original ideas. The latest Will Farrell vehicle, Land of the Lost is based on the 1970s TV show. Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming (and spellchecker-challenged) Inglourious Basterds is a remake of a 1978 B-movie. And now, for better or for worse (more on that shortly), we have Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 123, a retooling of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 action thriller.
Good morning, Mister Blue.
In the the original film, the late great Robert Shaw (above) leads a team of bow-tied, mustachioed and bespectacled terrorists who hijack a New York City subway train, seize hostages and demand $1 million in ransom from the city coffers. If the ransom does not arrive in precisely 1 hour, passengers will be executed at the rate of one per minute until the money appears (no pressure!). As city officials scramble to scare up that much loot on such short notice, a tense cat-and-mouse dialog is established (via two-way radio) between Shaw’s single-minded sociopath and the ever-rumpled Walter Matthau as a wry, world weary Transit Police lieutenant. Peter Stone’s screenplay (adapted from the novel by John Godey) is sharply written and rich in characterization; it’s also memorable for being so chock full of New York City “attitude” (every character, from the Mayor and his handlers on down to the subway hostages, is soaking in it). Sargent delivers a very gritty, organic and extremely believable urban thriller. It’s one of the first of its kind, actually; it could be seen as a pre-cursor to the by now all-too-familiar (although not as believable) Die Hard action pic formula. It most definitely influenced Tarantino, who blatantly lifted (OK, I’ll be nice and say: “paid homage to…”) one of its signature gimmicks. Shaw’s gang adapts non de plumes for their “job” based on colors (Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Grey and Mr. Brown). The men who pull off the heist in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs are designated by their ringleader as Messrs. White, Orange, Blonde, Blue, Brown, etc. (prompting the very chagrined Steve Buscemi’s immortal line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?!”)
All of which now brings us to the matter of Tony Scott’s new version, which, as I’m sure you have noticed, is being positioned as one of this summer’s blockbusters. Glancing at the director’s credits (as listed on the Internet Movie Database), I see that I have somehow managed to overlook all of his output between Enemy of the State (1998) and this one. It wasn’t necessarily by design; I love Enemy of the State, which holds a coveted place in my Conspiracy-A-Go-Go section. It’s just that Scott doesn’t tend to make the types of films that interest me (The Hunger and True Romance aside). And don’t get me started on that towel-snapping military recruitment ad, Top Gun (no, seriously…don’t).
In the new film, Denzel Washington steps into Walter Matthau’s shoes as Walter Garber, with a slight shift in job description (here he is a subway dispatcher, instead of a transit cop) and John Travolta plays the heavy, simply referred to as Ryder (What? No more Mr. Blue?!). The setup remains the same; the film jumps right into the action with Ryder and his henchmen hijacking a subway, seizing hostages and demanding ransom. Now, the prices have gone up since 1974 (even terrorists have to adjust for inflation). Ryder wants $10 million…and one cent. As in the original film, Garber and Ryder verbally square off (via cell phone in this outing) while the ransom is assembled and the clock ticks away.
Since this is Tony Scott, there’s never a dull moment (it’s rare for him hold any camera shot for much longer than 10 seconds). I know that this is basically an action movie, but the problem with Scott’s hyperkinetic visual style is that his goddamned camera NEVER stops moving, even when it should. For instance, there’s a bit of exposition where the Mayor (James Gandolfini) is standing on the street having a confab with his advisors about how they are going to handle the crisis. For the entire scene, Scott never stops spinning his camera in a dizzying 360, making you feel like you’re on a runaway merry-go-round (it almost triggered a relapse of a sporadic positional vertigo condition I have).
Another problem with the remake is the lack of character development. What made the original so good was the fact that it was a great ensemble piece; even minor walk-on characters had detectable personalities. There are a few attempts; for instance, Washington’s character is given some hints of moral ambiguity that starts to move the story in an interesting direction, but it never really develops into anything of substance (I had expected a little more from screenwriter Brian Helgeland, because he had done such a marvelous job co-adapting L.A. Confidential). Even the bad guys all had distinct personalities in the original film; here it’s all about keeping an over-the-top Travolta in the spotlight, while his cohorts are your non-descript standard-issue evil henchmen (the most recognizable is perennial second banana Luis Guzman; even he’s given less to do than usual). John Turturro is given short shrift as a hostage negotiator working alongside Garber (it’s possible that Scott wanted to make sure no one upstaged Washington, either).
I am aware that no matter how big, dumb and loud they are, summer movies like this are virtually critic-proof; and to be sure, Washington and Travolta are undeniably great actors (especially with the right material) and lend major box office clout to any film; but this one’s strictly a paycheck gig. My advice? Please step away from the sliding doors.
I have to share this with you. You will never guess who ended up sitting right next to me at the screening. Michael Medved (why does all this weird Zelig shit keep happening to me?!). No, I didn’t say anything to him (Christ, where would I start?). Anyway, I found it rather funny that he nodded off during the opening credits. It became more entertaining to me than the film, watching him lean to starboard, then to port; occasionally jerking awake whenever there was an explosion or a hail of gunfire onscreen. At one point, his huge, thatched head lolled dangerously close to actually ending up on my shoulder. But I knew I was fairly safe…because it would have required him to lean pretty far…um, to the left.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Until next week, the balcony is closed. Michael?
Blood on the tracks: The Incident, The French Connection, Pickup on South Street, The Warriors, Death Wish, King of New York, Jacob's Ladder, Le Samourai, Subway, Trans-Europ-Express, Pickpocket, La Bete Humaine, The Narrow Margin (1952), The Lady Vanishes, Lady on a Train, Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, North By Northwest, Silver Streak, Runaway Train, Breakheart Pass, From Russia With Love, High and Low, The Great Train Robbery, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Emperor of the North, Julia, The Train, Von Ryan's Express, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia.