Thirty-five years later, things are very different, even in the face of an asset-sucking recession. The crime has moved to the crystal meth labs on Main Street USA. We partied through our last blackout. And, like you, we enjoy our porn at home, not on Eighth Avenue. We made it through 9/11 and we’ll survive The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake for the unlettered. We dismissed a made-in-Toronto TV version in 1998 just by changing the channel. But this one, made on home turf—this one, we have to deal with.
The love for the original is easy as one, two, three. The movie took a hostage-taking scenario, outrageous even for its blighted times, and through it showed New York in all its resilient, workaday colors. It’s an appealingly plebian movie, with grumpy urban prole Walter Matthau pitted against the coolly European Robert Shaw, a pairing that struck a template most successfully exploited by the Die Hard movies. Around this face-off is a picture of the city under siege, milked as much for rueful humor as suspense as David Shire’s nervously caffeinated score plays. A lot of these movies ended on a hopeless, or unresolved, note; for a change, New York got to win this one, thanks to our clock-punching civil servants. For a day, at least, things were looking up in hell.
The new film, a $100 million undertaking, lacks this context, and I was grateful that director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland didn’t try to fake it in. I was appalled by the Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One, a sour vigilante saga that pretended that New York was as bad as it was back in the days of Death Wish and Taxi Driver, the credit that put her on the map in 1976. It isn’t, and Pelham 1 2 3 acknowledges this. Without the backbeat of urban crisis, however, there’s no compelling reason for the film to be, other than to apply summer movie razzmatazz to the concept.
Helgeland, who won an Oscar for his superb whittling down of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (1997), has gone back to John Godey’s 1973 novel for inspiration—a bad idea, as it lacks the cleaner plotting and street smarts that screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade) brought to it on film. You remember that the bad guys had color-coded monikers (a device Quentin Tarantino recycled for Reservoir Dogs) and that one of them has a giveaway cold, and the chillingly “New York” demise of Shaw; all the little bits that are original to the movie, not the blunter book. The novel is conventional; the film plays with conventions. One Two Three is fun; 1 2 3, stuffy, even pretentious.
Denzel Washington plays Matthau’s character. He and Scott have made four films together (with a fifth on the way, plus the intra-family American Gangster, a Ridley Scott picture) and they have a shorthand that’s given the actor a mastery of a certain kind of film stardom, where he does the same thing, differently, every time out. Last time, in DÃ©jÃ vu, he was romantic; here, he’s puffier, and has—sigh—a backstory. It’s not enough that he’s thrust into a bad situation while on the job at the MTA; he has to have something to atone for, so he can find—double sigh, yawn—redemption. The agent for his redemption is John Travolta’s excitable plotter. It’s not enough that he and his gunmen are shaking down the subways for $10 million—he’s Washington’s doppelganger, his twisted mirror image, his…Joker. If Washington rode a Bat-cycle to their final date with destiny I wouldn’t have been surprised. We’ve been down this tunnel before.
Travolta is lively, but fatiguing. Stripped of their colors, his cohorts are dull thugs. The only other person who registers is John Turturro’s hostage negotiator, who has a bad moment, regains his composure, and emerges a pro. As the mayor, a more comic part, James Gandolfini doesn’t pull his own weight; he’s tentative, which you can’t really be in an overbearing enterprise like this. Tony Scott has less of an eye, and less of a brain, then his older brother. His films are all about buzz and noise, and 360-degree pans around characters, and shifting frame rates, and multiple choppy edits within scenes that are already short. He’s been working on this since Top Gun in 1986, and won’t let it go, even when all it does is make potentially exciting sequences hectic and debilitating to watch. By the time they end you’ve already figured out the outcome and want to move on.
And you really want to move on, to another theater, when the best he and Helgeland can do to motivate one scene is to introduce a deus ex rodent. It betrays the gravity they’ve been trying so earnestly to establish. They want to have their remake and eat it, too. They bring the material into the 21st century by introducing the internet, and websites that say COMMUNICATION IS DOWN in big bold letters (all on product-plugged, studio-mandated Sony computers), and they also want to fix it for our times. They were smart to close one loophole, one regarding a mode of transport and an unbreakable deadline—but they do it after indulging in a frantic chase straight from the original, when it’s meaningless to do so.
Braced for disappointment, I still had a rooting interest in 1 2 3. A lot of the original was filmed in a disused subway tunnel that’s today part of the New York Transit Museum, not far from where I live in Brooklyn. The new one was in part filmed even closer, at a functional station. I’m duly impressed at how the production was able to get so much footage on the go. (Predictably, the movie fudges certain details about subway routes; absurdly, it leaves the subway altogether, for another New York landmark, for the climax.) Yet for all the physical proximity, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 felt far away from me in every other way.