I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Summer Movie Flashback: The Taking of Pelham 123

tn_takingofpelham

2009
2009

After their disagreement over DOMINO, my eyeballs and Tony Scott’s movies weren’t speaking to each other for years. But UNSTOPPABLE was okay and then the poor guy died and my eyeballs started to feel kinda bad and got nostalgic for all the good times of TRUE ROMANCE and CRIMSON TIDE and all that, and they finally saw REVENGE and they liked that quite a bit. You know, maybe if they had known what was coming they could’ve patched things up like N.W.A. did when Eazy E was dying. But that just wasn’t the way it worked out. It’s too bad.

Anyway I got caught in the middle of that beef and that’s why I skipped PELHAM 123 until now. Plus I really like the original and thought (well, knew) it could only suffer from updating.
John Travolta (FACE/OFF) takes the Robert Shaw role as the leader of a group of hijackers who take a New York City subway and its passengers hostage, Denzel Washington (RICOCHET) takes Walter Matthau’s ordinary transit employee who ends up in communication with him from headquarters, trying to resolve the situation. Denzel plays subtly weaker than the usual Denzel Alpha Male. That doesn’t just mean he wears glasses and his clothes don’t fit that well, but also sometimes someone says something harsh to him and he doesn’t say anything back or stare them down or anything. He just let’s it go.

Travolta, as an ex-con former Wall Street guy now sporting a neck tattoo and calling himself “Ryder,” is amped up to almost Castor Troy levels, very sarcastic and excitable, and I see that as a good thing. It’s an entertaining performance. I wouldn’t call it mega-acting, his eyes don’t bug out or anything, but he’s clearly having fun. He even talks about Denzel’s “sexy voice” and wanting to make him his bitch. This is kinda what I was worried he’d be like in THE PUNISHER, but in this one I like it.

Ryder’s experience as some kind of stock trader or whatever gives him the skills to pull off this scam, getting ransom money and investing it at just the right time to multiply it. But also he rants about zeitgeisty shit about the, you know, the corruption of the– the Wall Street or whatever. The bankers. The economy. All that. He’s one of these bad guys who is supposed to make us uncomfortable by being sort of right about current events, like Gary Oldman in AIR FORCE ONE. He’s mad as hell and not gonna etc. etc.

mp_takingofpelhamnWhat makes the movie somewhat work is the simplicity of the situation, this relationship of two guys talking, sort of trying to relate to each other, also trying to manipulate each other to get what they want. I don’t really believe that a random MTA employee would automatically turn into Sherlock Holmes and start trying to get clues out of the guy, take notes and work out some theories to present to the cops. Or that the hostage negotiator they call in (John Turturro) would be the one to boss everybody around and send cops to different locations and stuff. It’s fine though because this type of puzzle solving story is fun to watch and play along with at home.

But predictably Scott succumbs to the temptation to Action Movie this shit up. As the police convoy rushes to bring the ransom money to the dropoff point there’s cheesy DTV style “this is exciting” guitars, Avid farts and 3 separate vehicle collision incidents, including one spectacular police car crash and flip. Why are these cops so incompetent? Wouldn’t NYPD officers be driving through traffic at high speeds multiple times every day they work? It seems like they should actually be pretty good at hauling ass down a road without crashing.

There’s also some just plain dumb moments. A police sniper has a clear shot at Ryder but just as he’s asking for permission to shoot a fucking rat crawls up his pant leg, causing him to slip and shoot the wrong guy! Even worse, the wrong guy is Luis Guzman, who had barely even done anything in the movie yet. It doesn’t play out like a DEEP BLUE SEA type trick on the audience, just a disappointing decision to waste a good actor.

In the original Matthau runs down into the tunnel to catch the guy himself. Scott and screenwriter Brian PAYBACK Helgeland understandably decided to add more necessity to it, having Ryder demand that Denzel personally deliver the money. Yet they have him escape and then, even knowing that all the hostages have been saved, run after Ryder himself (and commandeer a vehicle!) to try to catch him and make sure he doesn’t get the city’s money. It always kinda bothered me that John McClane did this in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, but at least he was a cop. This is more like 911 operator Halle Berry in THE CALL going after the kidnapper on her own. Except this guy has a wife at home begging him to stay out of trouble. What the hell is he doing?

Oh yeah, redeeming himself. There’s a whole thing about how he’s in trouble for taking a bribe. He claims he didn’t do it, but you know he fucking did it. At the end there’s a nice moment where the mayor (the late James Gandolfini) pretty much tells him he’s proved himself and promises to get him out of trouble. The mayor gets alot of shit because he had an affair, so he understands being basically a good guy trying to get past a big mistake he made one time. I don’t think the mayor character quite works, though. Instead of coming off as multi-layered it just seems like a cheat where they paint him as a sleazy coward always worried about his image with the voters, then suddenly switch him to cool understanding guy who has Denzel’s back.

I don’t think the movie works because all the traditional stuff that’s supposed to be exciting seems so phony, it’s obvious that it doesn’t belong. To make this better than it is maybe they would’ve needed to strip it down even more than the original so it’s almost like a stage play. It’s those actor performances and the intimacy of the thing that is cool. Adding a bunch of car and motorcycle crashes doesn’t add anything in this case, it  just detracts.

But also it’s not terrible. There are worse ways to waste a couple hours. I just hope its okayness doesn’t deter anybody from seeing the original. It’s a more effective thriller, it’s funnier, it has a way, way, WAY better theme song by David Shire. If you haven’t bothered to see THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE yet then I have no choice but to bring out the big guns. Here are the opening credits:

For the new one they didn’t bother to compose a badass theme song. They just, uh, remixed “99 Problems,” apparently in honor of how many things are wrong with the movie.

This ended up being Scott’s next to last movie. It’s too bad he didn’t go out on a couple masterpieces, but I guess it’s better than poor Bob Clark, whose last two were KARATE DOG and BABY GENIUSES 2: SUPER BABIES. I’m sure we’ll never understand why Scott decided to take his own life, and it’s hard not to look for answers in the movies, since those are how we know him. I find myself wondering if he saw himself as a speeding train with no brakes, since one of those was featured in each of his last two movies. But that’s gotta be reading too much into it.

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VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, September 12th, 2013 at 2:28 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

31 Responses to “Summer Movie Flashback: The Taking of Pelham 123”

  1. unfortunately once again this is not a movie I’ve seen so the only thing I can contribute are my thoughts on 2009 and there’s not much to say about that either, it was better than 2008, a pretty fun year actually, but nothing spectacular (and here’s my obligatory “I can’t believe it’s already been 4 years”)

    however politically that was when things got weird, seemingly overnight as soon as Obama entered office the whole Tea Party thing was founded and Conservatives in general just totally flipped their fucking shit, it was so bizarre to me because these were the same people who just a few years prior were saying that criticizing the President is basically an act of treason, now these same people were slapping Hitler mustaches on Obama just like liberals did to Bush, the hypocrisy is staggering, I guess I should have seen it coming but it was still shocking to me

    oh and by the way, there was one thing very special about 2009, it was the year (spring of 2009 to be exact) I started reading your site, Vern! I had been reading your AICN reviews since 2007 and I can’t remember what exactly prompted me to start reading your personal site, but I’m sure glad I did!

  2. I still think there’s a really interesting drama in elements of the original book that still haven’t made it on-screen, but they’re part of what make it a period piece. In the original novel the MTA employee is black (definitely not Matthau!), and the mixed races of the hostages compared to those doing the heist are important in terms of the simmering tensions. The subway car occupants become a microcosm of New York’s racial tensions of the time, and that plays into both how the hostages interact with their captors as well as each other, and the dialogue between the lead crim and the employee negotiating with him. It always gets stripped out, but I’d love to see it put back in. Think Spike Lee’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 -2 -3 as a 70s period piece – I’d watch that!

  3. I know that I watched this movie, but I can’t remember much about it, except that the credits had me worried for another DOMINO style eyeball cancer orgy, but then was glad when the rest of the movie looked like a pretty normal movie.

    And one scene, where Travolta forces Denzel to confess that he took a bribe in front of everybody and for any reason everybody automatically believed him, although this could have been easily a “He only said it to save the life of the hostages” situation.

  4. This remake is so forgettable that I didn’t even remember that Luis Guzman was in it. I do remember Denzel having a big white zit in some scenes though. It really bothered me.

    But yeah, everybody see the original, please.

  5. I saw the 1998 version the other day, and liked that too. Maybe we could have a PELHAM movie every 10-15 years until we have enough for a Netflix marathon.

  6. I like Tony Scott’s films from Revenge through to Man on Fire(this one pushed the boundaries of excessive editing but I liked his character Creasy, hard but with a heart). I think Tony, unlike his brother Ridley never got to make smaller films like Matchstick Men. Maybe Flashdance though, but I think that was one of his first films before he became a product of the Bruckheimer/Simpson machine from Top Gun onwards. True Romance to me was his most likable film. Scott was handed his best screenplay by far from Tarantino.

  7. Speaking of eyes and Tony Scott disagreeing, I found his Pelham to be physically painful to look at whenever he cut to slow-motion blurred footage of a speeding subway train. Even more so than Domino (which to be fair is painful in lots of other ways).

    Incidentally I read the book of Pelham recently and found it to be pretty execrable, with some weird racial politics–it’s only interesting for its lead character being kind of a riff on a Parker-esque remorseless thief.

    The original film adaptation is still good, though, with one of the all-time great movie endings.

  8. Oh yeah… I remember that, Vern. I remember liking the movie a whole lot until Denzel just decides to go after Travolta there at the end; made no sense and kinda ruined the movie.

  9. I´m fine with most of Tony Scotts output in the 2000´s. Except for DOMINO.Mostly terrible movie. Only good moment in that is Christopher Walkens “font issue”-scene.

  10. Very bland, very forgettable indeed. Hard to hate it, hard to call it exactly watchable. Why even bother?

    The original kicks balls.

  11. I hate this remake with a passion. This has some of Tony Scott’s worst stylistic issues, I think visually it’s an ugly mess. And he’s always throwing in these stupid gimmicks (the google maps thing, awful blurry slo-mo of the train) that just serve to ruin any tension the movie is building. Travolta over-acts to an embarrassing level.

    It’d just be a lame movie, if it wasn’t a remake of one of the best 70s thrillers. It’s crazy watching the two back to back and seeing how much they botched it.

  12. Good God, I can’t believe I’d forgotten how great that theme tune is. And I’m talking about the original, of course. Like many people here, I kinda love that movie. From the first shot to the last (and definitely the last – Walter’s face is priceless there) it’s great.

    In another Good God moment – is the entire Tony Scott film like that opening in the video above? It’s like filmmaking on Tourettes. “Look! Now the camera’s over here! Now it’s over there! Here’s a guitar blast! Here’s two words of a rap break! Here’s Denzel! Here’s Denzel from a slightly different angle! Why? Because FUCK YOU, that’s why!” And the weird thing is, some of what’s being done is actually pretty impressive. I kinda love the device of transitioning two scenes by first showing a section of train line, then having a guy in a suit walk across the front of the scene, and everything he passes turns into a completely different scene of Denzel watching the SAME scene as we were watching a second ago, in an office, on a computer monitor. That’s really clever and could be really effective, if only it didn’t get lost in the noise of a hundred other similar touches being thrown at us in quick succession.

    And as for the scoring of the new one… the irony here is that I’m the guy who’s always complaining about inapprorpriate rap music in films like “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Django Unchained”, yet I have zero problems with it in films like this. I just don’t understand why they’d use it in THAT WAY. Why just give us the one line, then cut to a train horn? (Actually, since horns are sometimes used as “fart substitutes”, looked at in one way this could be absolute unintentional comedy gold.)

    So yeah… I probably won’t see the remake. But I will always have a place in my heart for the original.

  13. I too prefer the original. It feels way more entrenched in the surroundings, and Robert Shaw is a bonafide bad-ass in this one (as opposed to Travolta’s whiny bitch of a villain here).

  14. It did seem as though there was a whole subgenre of “straight” thrillers that came out in the ‘seventies, with a gritty tone and tightly-drawn characters, on a smaller scale than the big disaster movies (“The Poseidon Adventure”, “Earthquake” and “Juggernaut” for example) and with an obviously smaller budget, but with a great emphasis on story. A few of my favorite movies come from that sort of era. The original “Pelham” is definitely one of them.

  15. Didn’t know there was a 1998 TV version. From the director of FIRE DOWN BELOW, too.

  16. Paul: Another film like that is THE ANDERSON TAPES. Connery is great but it was almost better seeing a very young-looking Christopher Walken in what was his first film. You could definitely tell he was “Walken” right ouf of the gate.

  17. One touch with the PELHAM remake I’ll admit I did dig, was that moment when the James Gandolfini character figured out that one aspect of the villain’s plan. Sure most of the movie was spent ridiculing the public official in charge (as the original did) but I still liked it. Nothing else I can really remember about this.

  18. Onthewall – thanks, I’ll look out for that one. Sounds like my sort of thing.

  19. I refuse to see this on principle. How do you ignore David Shire’s score, one of the five best in MOVIE HISTORY, and replace it with Jay Z? All respect to Hova, that’s just dim.

    I’m sad that Tony Scott is gone, but at least he didn’t get to remake The Warriors. God knows what would have happened there.

  20. actually, I’m disappointed he never got to remake THE WARRIORS, just out of pure curiosity

  21. Talking of 70’s thrillers (one of my favorite subjects) THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE is the last of three marvelous crime movies Walter Matthau made in 1973/74, with CHARLIE VARRICK as the masterpiece and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN a good second. These movies are essential viewing and everybody who hasn’t seen all three must do so before they write anything else on Vern’s sight.

  22. Haven’t seen LAUGHING POLICEMAN but I prefer PELHAM over CHARLIE VARRICK. From what I remember in CHARLIE VARRICK it felt like it was written for Clint but he rejected it. PELHAM is much closer to something like Walter’s more comedic stuff like THE ODD COUPLE. It’s a very funny movie for not being a comedy (the ending is hilarious).

  23. But that’s what’s so great about VARRICK. Matthau gets to play the Clint part. And he does it well. Besides, you gotta love a Movie where the line “They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” has it’s origin.

  24. The Laughing Policeman? I’ve read a Swedish crime novel by that name… would the Matthau film be based on it by any chance? It was one of those “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”-type crossover successes back in the day.

  25. I would have loved to see CHARLEY VARRICK with Clint in the lead role, but I actually think seeing Matthau in a part which is obviously written for an Eastwood-type is what makes the movie so perfectly sublime. With Clint, you’d never have any doubt that he’ll win in the end. With Matthau, Varrick is more enigmatic. He’s obviously smarter than everyone assumes, but he also seems vulnerable and sort of pathetic, a small man who lives in a trailer and has been hustling all his life only to find himself old and alone and with nothing to show for it. With Clint, there’s a measure of dignity in that; he’s so obviously a badass that it seems in some way like a personal rejection of society. With Matthau, it seems like a guy who just never had any measure of luck before, and can’t imagine that changing any time soon. I reviewed it awhile back, and the kind of unusual sense of intelligence and ambiguity that Matthau brings to the roll still sticks with me.

    http://wearecursedtoliveininterestingtimes.blogspot.com/2012/08/charley-varrick.html

    By the way, if you guys wanna see Vern review that one you should vote for it in the “suggestions” tab. I for one would be much more interested in that one than his take on CON AIR, the current frontrunner.

  26. You’re right, Paul. It’s based on Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s fourth book about police inspector Martin Beck. They’ve made a ton of movies about Beck in Sweden, but this American film is actually one of the first and the one that sets the tone for the rest of them.

  27. Mr Subtlety, the only reason I can see for giving the role to Clint would be to see him having The Scorpio Killer as his sidekick (as Varrick has).

  28. “It always kinda bothered me that John McClane did this in DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE”
    How come? After all Simon put him through that day, don’t you think John needed some “a vengeance” of his own?

  29. Also, it’s not like he was kicking the door down himself. He was just supposed to be watching from the helicopter. If he really thought he was going to see any action, he would have brought a gun.

    Also, he probably just wanted an excuse to get the fuck out of the festering swampbox that is New York City in the summertime. A free trip up to the Canadian border where it gets cool enough to wear a windbreaker after the sun goes down? I’ve had days when that would be a fair trade for getting shot at a few times.

  30. Tony Scott’s version of PELHAM is okay, I guess. I just noticed that he uses the same type of zoom-in during the opening credits as Ridley Scott does in HANNIBAL. Coincidence?

  31. CHARLEY VARRICK is like an Avengers Assemble of the Don Siegel stock company: Andy Robinson (as Pegsman noted), John Vernon, Albert Popwell, and Woodrow Parfrey from DIRTY HARRY, Norman Fell from THE KILLERS, Tom Tully and Scott Hale from COOGAN’S BLUFF. Plus, you got your Joe Don Baker (when he was still the hardass guy from WALKING TALL), William Schallert, Sheree North, and IMDB says Bob Steele in an uncredited appearance. It doesn’t measure up to any of those three Siegel films, and it doesn’t have pop resonance like DIRTY HARRY or INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, but it showed up on TV all the time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and I’m surprised some producer/director now in his 50s who saw it as a kid on Saturday Afternoon Dialing for Dollars hasn’t remembered it and wanted to remake it with Dwayne Johnson or Marky Mark.

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