Saturday, January 5, 2013

Cinema 2009: Leaving Pelham 1 2 3

The sounds of subway trains can be heard briefly during the opening credits in the 2009 remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," before rap music obliterates that poignant aural touch.

Similarly, the expressionism evident in the cinematography of the early scenes — lights reflected in a man's spectacles, defining him by the career he chose; confining scenes shot through the cloudy glass of a subway car's windows — cedes too quickly to run-of-the-mill images. It is as if director Tony Scott lost interest in the psychological study of greed, violence, and fear, and decided instead to coast on production values and the acting of Denzel Washington, as MTA employee Garber, and John Travolta, as the subway hijacking sociopath Ryder, performances that struggle to gain traction amid the nonsense and routine of an unremarkable so-called Hollywood thriller.

The script does include great detail, but it is the kind of stuff you would expect in a weekly TV show, including plenty of comic-relief one-liners. Writer Brian Helgeland includes a video-chat plotline, which is a good idea when updating a screenplay from 1974. Too bad he forgot to include a coherent middle and ending to his script.

The cops are portrayed as big kids with plenty of fancy toys but not much training. Indeed, what we find here is a hostage situation where vermin in a subway tunnel are calling the shots.

The working class stiffs get short shrift in this remake. They are the victims of ambush or personal failure. While Garber disingenuously refers to himself as "just a guy," we soon learn that he is dispatching only because he is under investigation for having accepted a bribe. In reality, Garber's a big shot — one that broke the rules and the law.

Ryder himself is a rotten apple from Wall Street. It is as good a place as any to find your criminal du jour. But in the 1973 novel, and the original film based on it, the bad guy is a former mercenary.

In Scott's remake there are many quick-cut close-ups. The same repetitive camera movement repeatedly introduces us to Garber at the microphone of his dispatch desk, and that repetition detracts from any dynamic effect.

Lame, too, is the use of Google Earth-type special effects to show the progress of police bringing the ransom money through the city. Call me old school but I want to watch a movie not a website.

A bloody shootout in the middle of midtown is gratuitous. I suggest it would have been more gratifying for the audience to see those perps prostrate on Park Avenue with New York's finest pinning them to the pavement as they slap on the cuffs. That image at least would have alluded to the triumph of the rule of law, something Americans used to claim pride in.

John Turturro is wasted here as the hostage negotiator who doesn't get to negotiate, although the script allows him human touches.

The climax of course pits Ryder against Garber, alone in New York City in the middle of rush hour, while the entire NYPD is looking for the bad guy. Scott draws out that final face-to-face as if something climactic is about to happen. It does not. A couple dialog lines overstuffed with pseudo-philosophy and bang. Heck, we don't even get a splashdown in the East River. That would have at least provided viewers with some well-deserved scenic beauty after more than an hour of cinematic claustrophobia.

As good as Washington is at portraying "just a guy," that portrayal suffers when the script, which has already unmasked Garber as a muckety-muck, later turns him into an action figure who runs down a murderous psychopath with no backup. Afterward, Garber is debriefed by the cops, stroked by the mayor, and turned loose to ride home alone on the subway — with not so much as a counselor, police escort, or hungry reporter in tow. Of course, that particular subway car is also devoid of commuters. It conveys "just a guy" (who occasionally travels to Japan on business), alone with his thoughts after one hell of day at the office.

Joe Sargent directed the original, released in 1974, back when they still spelled out words like "One Two Three."

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