starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, James Gandolfini
screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey
directed by Tony Scott
by Walter Chaw It's amazing that a film that takes place on a metal tube in a dank tunnel should have no trace of come in it. Less amazing when one considers that it's Tony Scott at the helm of this redux--the same Tony Scott who arguably reached the zenith of his potential with his vampire-erotica cult debut The Hunger, whose best film is the result of a superior screenplay by Quentin Tarantino (True Romance), and whose main claim to fame may be that he's behind one of the most homoerotic sequences ever captured on film in his gay amusement park Top Gun. Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (hereafter Pelham) is packed to the gills with meaningless, hyperactive visual gawping every bit as bad here as it is in his unwatchable Domino, so frantic that it has the opposite effect on the audience by rendering itself static and boring. (There's a lot going on in a screen full of snow, too, but all it does is put you to sleep.) The picture reunites Scott with his go-to leading man Denzel Washington, whose Garber, an MTA operator fallen under suspicion of taking a bribe, replaces Walter Matthau's weary, hangdog transit cop from the Joseph Sargent original. When ridiculous goon Ryder (John Travolta) hijacks the titular subway car with a pack of the usual suspects (including Luis Guzmán, of course), it's up to smooth-talking every-dude Garber to cover up the deficiencies of hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro), the gasbag Mayor (James Gandolfini), and all the bumblefuck NYPD who manage to accidentally snipe one of the bad guys, crash a car racing through Manhattan, and decorate a couple of baddies with a good twenty clips of ammunition in the middle of Uptown. It also, as a way to give the film a contemporary slant against which the terminally un-hip Scott is well over-matched, demonizes Wall Street by having its chief baddie be a former securities trader who hatches a plan to fuck the stock market by making New Yorkers afraid that his plot is a terrorist attack. Pelham is, in other words, rather tasteless in addition to being awful.
Here's the thread that unravels the whole shooting match: Among the hostages is a widow and her young son, and, right at the moment someone's about to get shot in the face by Tourette's Barbarino, our widow steadfastly fails to cover the youngster's eyes. It seems like a small thing, but not only is it not observant of actual human behaviour, it's been obviously neglected so that Scott can use the youngster for reaction shots to the carnage. Something about that, maybe something obvious, rubs me in precisely the wrong way. It's not a moral question--it's that Scott is using a child to manipulate an audience response to a summary execution that he predicts, perhaps correctly, will carry weight in no other way. That all the human cargo in the picture is swiftly jettisoned to make way for the gunfire and car chases of the finale is Pelham forfeiting its artifice at last and presenting itself as an empty vesicle wholly bereft of import and consequence. It might've had a better chance had it not undertaken the pretense in the first place. As it is, the working-class blues riff screenwriter Brian Helgeland crams into this piece of shit is unbecoming, to say the least. We're asked to suture to Garber because he's the common, blue-collar foot soldier, put upon for a crime (accepting a bribe) that he didn't commit and--when it's finally revealed that he's guilty--instantly absolved of it because he did it for the sake of his children's education. Not content with moral absolution, though, Pelham is facile enough to also offer an expository payoff with a Mayoral pardon. How exactly one sides with a civil servant who abuses the public trust is a gobstopper, if admittedly sort of an interesting one. Consider that the rest of the crowd-pleasing stuff has to do with how stupid the police are and how ridiculous is Big Apple bureaucracy. Pelham is a remake of a film from the '70s, but in its sensibilities it's right out of the '40s.
What's so soul-sucking about Pelham, however, isn't that it's dumb and irrelevant, but that there was so much energy expended on a vehicle with faulty wiring and a broken steering column. There's a total lack of rhythm to it as well as of any sort of unifying theme or vision, and then after all that, there doesn't appear to be any recognition that the well's dry and has been since inception. Pelham represents what happens when momentum overtakes, obscures, overrides art--the surety that because you have aging superstars in place in key positions with a director who turns in unthreatening work at regular intervals, it doesn't matter that there's no foundation. That if you get Travolta to do his psycho thing and Washington to do his soothing thing, there will be neither need, nor room, for developing their characters. That if you remake a well-remembered picture by adding a couple of contemporary touches, you can forego addressing the holes opened up in the material by all that dimwitted, piecemeal tinkering. Pelham is the worst kind of dreck, the movie that people are referring to when they bemoan the crap that Hollywood pumps out every year but are incapable of remembering any details about save the only details relevant to its existence: "You know, that one with John Travolta and Denzel Washington." The only reason it's not worse is because hearing Travolta say "lick my bunghole, motherfucker" is worth a ring tone. Originally published: June 12, 2009.