Film Review | Sunday, 16 August 2009
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Going off the rails on a crazy

You could dispense quite a lot of bile on Tony Scott, if you happen to be in the adequate mood for some righteous bashing. The man responsible for box-office busters Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and others has a reliable set of visual gimmicks always ready at hand, and shows no signs of giving them up, even as the gritty, generic thrillers pile on year in, year out.
In 2004 it was Man on Fire, the following year he gave us Domino, with Keira Knightley playing against type as amoral mercenary Domino Harvey and he made Déjà Vu in 2006, which, like Man on Fire, featured Denzel Washington. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 reintroduces the Academy-Award winning star with the British-born director. But this isn’t the only consistent thread in the story: like Man on Fire, which was originally a little-known 1987 feature starring Silence of the Lambs’ Scott Glenn, Pelham is also a remake. In this case, it is a remake of the 1974 Joseph Sargent film featuring Walter Mathau and Robert Shaw: which is in turn an adaptation of the highly popular novel by John Godey, and which had already been remade in 1988 as a TV movie. Even the most credulous among us would be suspicious of where Scott’s career might be heading, especially considering how his upcoming feature The Warriors also happens to be a remake of an adaptation from the 70s. Behind the layers upon layers of re-hashing, can anything fresh emerge from the pile at all? Not really, but that doesn’t stop the heist-thriller from delivering the goods.

As a deceptively calm overhead shot of New York City quickly gives way to Scott’s trademark rapid-cuts with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems as a backdrop (you get the feeling that the 65-year-old is really trying hard to cosy up with the kids), the action zooms in on the subway, where we witness John Travolta’s Ryder hijack the Pelham 1:23pm line, along with his cohorts, demanding $10 million from the city of New York, to be delivered in one hour. For every minute past the deadline, Ryder promises to kill a random passenger. Back at the Metropolitan Transport Authority Control Center, Denzel Washington’s Walter Garber, a subway dispatcher with a rocky past, becomes unwittingly involved in the hostage situation, as Ryder insists, for mysterious reasons, on only speaking to Garber while he negotiates his demands. As the Mayor (James Gandolfini) and Lieutenant Camonetti (John Turtorro), hostage specialist for the NYPD, orbit around the hapless Garber in an attempt to contain the situation, things spiral out of control when secrets are revealed and the rules are shifted.

Many resent Scott’s visual ticks, and for good reason: they often come off as superficially effective but ultimately facile and, at worst, annoying ways of wringing out some visual pizzazz and cranking up the thrills. They are very much in evidence here, but the taut framing mechanism of the one-hour deadline inevitably makes things more controlled. Sure, this is hardly a credit to the director - who once again insists on using comic-booky captioning (see: Man on Fire) to count down the minutes - but when coupled with a deliciously restrained premise (it’s essentially two guys talking over the phone), the MTV-editing does very little harm and in fact, it works hand-in-hand with the gritty New York underbelly setting, Scott’s cocky swagger in line with the hardened sarcasm of the characters and the setting. Which means, quite naturally, that the bulk of the work needs to be done by the actors. Travolta and Washington dive into their respective roles with obvious relish, even if Brian Helgeland’s screenplay never really delivers up the witty repartee that would help nudge the experience of the film up from good to great. Subtlety was never really Scott’s forte, and we see this most clearly with Travolta’s take on Ryder. Robert Shaw’s interpretation of the character was notable for its cold, calculating tenor. Travolta, on the other hand, cusses and shouts his way through, a powder keg that threatens to implode at any time and very frequently actually does. In the hands of a lesser actor he would come off as a petulant child, but thankfully, Travolta has the manic charm to override that problem, giving us a villain in whose company we can never really be bored. His vileness is a force of nature, so when contrasted with the put-upon Garber, the chemistry is fun to watch, as a bespectacled Washington contributes a calculatedly subdued performance. The supporting players, on the other hand, don’t fare so well. Both Gandolfini and Turturro are criminally underused - and it’s not an issue of running time: with a more imaginatively-crafted script and a better-calibrated direction on Scott’s part, this reviewer is convinced that the able screen-thesps would have made for nicely fleshed out distractions from the central action. Which, by the way, never lets up. Once again, the one-hour deadline keeps boredom at bay, but even after the initial act, when new revelations are made and arbitrary, mini-deadlines are set up by the increasingly more dangerous Ryder, the world is set up perfectly, and you just go along with the ride.

It’s hardly art, but considering it’s a remake of a twice-adapted novel, you’d be forgiven for expecting less.


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