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If I can make it there...
on June 20, 2009
I'm a big fan of the original version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. It was a snapshot in time of New York City in the seventies; a cynical, bloated, bureaucratic mess that was entirely unprepared for a terrorist attack. In fact, there were actually concerns that the movie would inspire real terrorists to take a subway train hostage. The original featured everything from undercover cops to hippies, a crisp military professional turned terrorist to the random accidents of people in stressful situations. It even invented the "color codenames" later used in Reservoir Dogs.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is catnip to movie directors in the same way that single stage sets are to theatrical directors - be it a subway or a stage with just two chairs, this is a film about two men facing off in a battle of wits. The majority of the movie takes place over an intercom between a terrorist and a dispatcher, with occasional cuts to the havoc their conversation causes throughout New York City. And if the terrorist represents the international Other that is a threat to our national security, the dispatcher represents the everyman of New York, our hardworking servicemen and women who lost their lives on September 11. With material like that, it's no wonder the film has been remade twice.
Director Tony Scott updates the film to modern day sensibilities. The villain, Ryder (John Travolta in full crazy mode), isn't a mercenary applying crisp military precision to the art of extortion; he's a (SPOILER ALERT) former Wall Street tycoon - slightly lower on the villain totem pole than industrialists who pollute the environment. The undercover cop moves into action immediately rather than later in the film, because of course New York's finest would respond quickly to a terrorist attack. And the dispatcher, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, looking appropriately puffy and slouched) has a more complicated past and a bigger role.
Unfortunately, the film suffers as a result. In the original, military precision was entirely the point. The trains never ran on time, so challenging New York to meet a deadline was both a delicious irony and a sticking point with a former military officer who expects nothing less than perfection from his men and from the negotiators. Here, that point is muddled by a sort of "we're all into this together" blue collar ethic that Ryder projects into Garber. Their dialogue still crackles, but this simple change dilutes the force of the film.
The four-man team of bad guys is reduced to two speaking parts, with the other two generic thugs. The emphasis is clearly on Travolta and Washington, and it's refreshing to have a movie that's not afraid to spend some time letting actors just act. There's a lot of talking in this film and that's not a bad thing.
The movie struggles with the modern updates. A live wireless webcam feed gets broadcast to the Internet without government interference (yeah, right). Even though the laptop's battery dies, it's mysteriously back on a moment later. And the two teens on either side of the webcam come off as self-absorbed morons.
Because this is a big budget action film, the quiet subtlety of the original version is glossed over in favor of an MTA agent handling a hostage negotiation, wielding a gun, and ultimately engaging in a showdown with the bad guy. Since Ryder has no principles to speak of, the conclusion is particularly unsatisfying.
Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a serviceable action film but not a particularly good update of the original. The seventies version was more of a drama with an ensemble cast that was comfortable playing second fiddle to the biggest character of all: New York City.