Living

'Pelham' isn't as manly as it thinks

I'm disgusted.

You heard me -- I'm disgusted. Tony Scott has gone ahead and screwed up my summer, man! What has he done that is so awful, you ask? Well, apart from all the movies he's done in the past that are just painful to watch (Do you want me to bring up "Domino"? DO YOU!?!), he took a movie that I thought was awesome and remade it into another pile-up of noise, gunfire and blustery machismo.

In case you haven't heard, he remade "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," a 1974 action-thriller that, some of you may already know, makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. (For those who attended the N.C. Museum of Art screening of "Pelham" that I introduced earlier this year, good looking out!) Joseph Sargent's movie (based on John Godey's 1973 novel), with four men hijacking a subway train and looking to get a million dollars out of the deal, is perhaps the most cynically funny film I've seen about '70s-era New York.

Set in a financially and morally bankrupt Big Apple, most of the town greets this grave situation with dark-humored indifference, just another problem this bad luck-plagued city has to deal with. ("What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents -- to live forever?" one of the characters memorably says about the poor hostages.)

Since we're now living in post-9/11 America, this version (titled "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") is mostly delivered with a straight face. Instead of Walter Matthau's yellow-tie-wearing transit cop, we get Denzel Washington as Walter Garber, a train dispatcher who has the misfortune of being on duty when a mysterious cat named Ryder (John Travolta) calls in and says he and his crew have hijacked a train and they want a $10 million ransom.

Foul-mouthed and racist, Travolta's Ryder is a 180-degree turn from Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue from the original "Pelham." Blue was sensible and coldly meticulous, only ready to draw fire on someone when he has to. Ryder is more like Hector Elizondo's gung-ho Mr. Grey, a heavily armed wild card, certain to cause havoc if he doesn't get his way. It seems as if Travolta's profane ringleader has a grudge against New York, and he intends to take his wrath out on anyone who doesn't take his demands seriously.

While the story (lazily plotted by the usually efficient Brian Helgeland) loses the cynicism that made the original so appealing, "Pelham" is still cynical.

Because he is making a summer movie, Scott heightens his usual visual trickery to make this look more exciting than it obviously isn't. Apparently taking a page from Wong Kar Wai's playbook, Scott shoots all the scenes in slo-mo, shaky-cam style -- that is, when he's not having the camera pirouette around his actors, as if making us dizzy is a guaranteed part of the movie-going experience.

It's obvious that Scott spends more time with the look of the movie than dealing with the actors, who each seem to have their own general idea of how to play their characters. Washington basically lets his paunch do most of the acting, as he plays a seen-it-all dude whose main priority is to just make it home in time for dinner. (Speaking of Washington, wasn't he in a much better "Pelham" remake a couple of years ago, called "Inside Man"? What is he doing in this?) Meanwhile, he has to deal with Travolta, whose over-the-top performance would be entertaining if he wasn't so sincere about it. Anyone who has seen Travolta in heavy roles before (remember his pipe-chewing villain from "The Punisher"?) knows the man has a problem playing baddies: He thinks being villainous and being broad are the same thing.

John Turturro comes in with Zen-like calm, almost refusing to raise his voice, as the hostage negotiator who aids Garber. (It's as if he took on this role to get the understated acting out of the way so he can camp it up for the upcoming "Transformers" sequel.) James Gandolfini practically serves as the audience surrogate in his performance as the sarcastic, barely respected mayor, pointing out the dunderheaded moves both the good and bad guys make as this story goes on. It almost makes you wish his character could have been in the original.

There I go again, bringing up the original. I can't help it. The original was -- and still is -- a fun time at the movies. This "Pelham" doesn't even bother to give the audience a good time. It's more concerned with beating on its manly chest, letting out a string of loud obscenities to let everybody know that this is a movie with, to quote wrestler Mick Foley, testicular fortitude. But, in actuality, "Pelham" isn't half the man the original was. You're better off just finding that movie on Netflix.

By the way, did I say I was disgusted?

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments