The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Real New Yorkers®
Tony Scott
Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman
The Setup: 
Remake of the well-crafted 70s thriller, pumped up for the new millennium

I was semi-curious to see this since I had seen the quite nice original, but my enthusiasm was dampened by hearing that it is supposed to be awful, and the fact that it’s directed by Tony Scott, purveyor of steroided-up action movies that exist for the sole purpose of raping audiences for money. But another rainy day in the rainiest of Junes found me in the theater, as this was the least horrible of several horrible options.

We open with the typical hyper Tony Scot credit sequence, in which the sun makes a BOOM when appearing from behind a building. By the end of the credits John Travolta and company have taken control of a subway train at gunpoint. We have also are introduced to Washington as Walter Garber—the change of the character’s first name to Walter is probably some sort of tribute to Matthau, who starred in the original—who is supposed to be an everyman New Yorker who dresses quite nattily for what we can assume his salary must be. But the biggest laugh in the first few scenes is this massive, NASA-esque, WarGames-like high-tech control room with a huge screen laying out the position of every train in the system, and clean, neat workstations. Ha! I don’t believe it for a second. Now, it’s true, I’ve never seen the MTA’s subway control room, but consider this: The MTA is the company who, nine years ago, said they would have no trouble dealing with the Y2K crisis because they still did everything ON PENCIL AND PAPER. The MTA is the company who, when considering adding a system that tells those waiting on the platform when the next trains will be arriving, as is common in London and Paris and Berlin and Washigton, DC, said it would take at least TEN YEARS to get such a thing working. And whose few visible control rooms in the existing subway look like a historical exhibit on the dingy, cluttered offices of the 1970s. So to imagine that the MTA has a clean, organized high-tech control room somewhere really is the Laff Riot of 2009 [and I have since spoken to an MTA employee who assures me that such a control room is the stuff of science fiction].

So Travolta, who chooses the name Ryder to communicate under, calls Garber and starts yakking about his plan and demands. By the way, in the original, the villains called themselves Mr. White and Mr. Pink and such, which is what inspired Quentin Tarantino to use this trick for Reservoir Dogs. Ryder tells Garber—and us—that he “represents the city of New York,” as the camera tracks back and forth and back and forth and back and forth by Washington, since Scott doesn’t like static cameras AT ALL. Garber also has an asshole boss, who we know is a jerk because he has hunting posters on his wall. There is none of this nonsense in the original.

Anyway, SWAT teams dispatched, etc., and the passengers supposedly take it with barely a raised eyebrow when their train skips a stop, and react like it’s just another minor inconvenience when the rain cars separate, leaving them stuck dead in the tunnel. Maybe this is supposed to be someone’s idea of how New Yorkers take everything in stride, but it is in sharp contrast to what I’ve experienced in reality. I remember once being on a city bus that had to pull up a few feet to take a handicapped passenger, and didn’t open its doors right away—the passengers acted as though they were in some sort of disaster film and a madman had seized the controls of the bus and threatened to take them on a demented joyride to Parsippany. This disparity between the Time Magazine, NYC tourist bureau-approved view of New Yorkers® and real New Yorkers is emblematic of the entire film.

This version of the film has cocked up some kind of scandal in Garber’s past, I guess to make him more “edgy” or give him more texture, since simply being a smart, decent guy is not enough. So now he’s accused of taking a bribe, which is why he was demoted to dispatcher [or whatever he is]. At a certain point Ryder threatens to kill a passenger unless Garber admits to taking the bribe. I read the film as that Garber did not actually take the bribe, but is forced to say he did in order to save the guy [others think he did actually take the bribe]. So it struck me as curious that after telling Ryder he did, he didn’t turn around to his boss and the FBI and tell them that he actually didn’t, he was just saying that to save the guy. I guess this is to generate complications to make the film seem more involved. Another useless complication is this kid who is on a webcam with his girlfriend. The villains rig up a wireless connection in the subway tunnel [unlikely], but doesn’t explain how this kid somehow had a wireless connection BEFORE they rigged this up. His webcam serves as a conduit to broadcast the hostage situation to the news, helping the control room identify some of the criminals, but apparently no one at the news thinks to delay the broadcast in order to avoid showing—as they apparently do—a man being gunned down live. You spend the entire movie thinking the webcam is going to be discovered—especially when the guy’s offensively needy girlfriend is demanding that he tell her he love her as men with guns walk a few feet away—but ultimately the whole webcam angle amounts to nothing.

What else? There’s a sniper ready to take out Ryder, who is waiting for… what? He has several golden opportunities. He eventually accidentally shoots Guzman [who is given NOTHING to do but literally stand around], because a rat was crawling around his leg [thank you, Mission: Impossible], but the thing is, the film showed the rat crawling around his leg seemingly an hour earlier, meaning the guy [and the rat] spent all that time simply hanging out together? That’s nice. We can all get along.

While we’re on the topic of annoyingly banal details, how about Garber’s perfect, hot wife [at least the film doesn’t show her hanging out in lingerie, like former Washington films Déjà vu and Inside Man]? Or the way he deals with the fact that he might be dead by dinnertime by talking about how his daughter should just run straight during her big track meet the next day? And his wife deals with her worry by telling him to pick up milk on the way home? Is that screenwriting tip #108 or #109? I forget. Or how he is somehow able to have a perfectly clear cell conversation while directly beneath helicopter blades whirring at full speed? Oh, and the city is delivering $10 million in cash to the criminals under a harsh time constraint, yet don’t send anyone ahead to clear traffic? Of course not, because if they did, how would we have a huge car accident?

In the end, Ryder demands that Garber deliver the money himself, because it’s important that our two leads have some face time. Soon two bad guys are getting totally, egregiously pumped full of lead right in the middle of a Midtown street, and Garber and Ryder face off on a bridge. Ryder demands that Garber shoot him, and apparently Garber doesn’t get out to the movies a lot, since he never thinks to just shoot him in the leg. The mayor tells Garber he can look forward to a full pardon, leaving the issue of whether he actually took the bribe unanswered. Garber takes the subway home and walks happily to his home, the film hammering home the whole, patented “New Yorkers are everyday heroes” thing.

It could have been worse, I suppose, and might not seem so lame if you hadn’t seen the original. It’s just your average Tony Scott film, with everything pumped up and tweaked for maximum mayhem—like Michael Bay lite.

An older friend of mine who saw the original back when it was released rolls his eyes when it’s mentioned, saying it was a piece of crap. Well, I say, it may have seemed entirely unremarkable at the time, but compared to the movies of today it stands out for being a very well-crafted thriller with actual characters, which might make it seem better in retrospect. The original was very low-key and straightforward, allowing you to really believe that Matthau was this normal, everyday New Yorker pulled into this extraordinary situation. Washington can no longer convincingly pull off the regular guy routine, he’s just too perfect and charismatic.

The other thing is that the original was a real New York movie: the city was grubby and rife with mundane complications, and the transit workers were just low-key regular folks, doing their jobs. The direction kept things realistic and on a human level, letting the situation speak for itself without using a number of cinematic tricks to pump the tone to one of hysteria. It worked as a New York film about everyday heroes by keeping the tone low-key. The new film has the tone of one of those post-9/11 Time-Life tributes to New York’s Heroes®, pushing an outsider’s IDEA of what they’re all about over the mundane reality. It’s New York® vs New York.

Still, there are worse things you could see. I suppose. This one seems destined to rake in its money and then join other recent Tony Scott movies as a cable staple and in the previously-viewed DVD bin.

Should you watch it: 

It won’t kill you, but there are better ways to spend your time.