WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Compromised subway dispatcher Walter Garber’s lousy day gets much worse when a train is hijacked by a ruthless robber calling himself Ryder and demanding $10 million in the space of an hour, or his hostages will start to die. With the assistance of negotiators and New York’s Mayor, Walter manages to get Ryder what he needs with the minimum of bloodshed; but when Walter is told to deliver the cash himself, the Average Joe needs to display extraordinary courage.
The phrase ‘you know you’re getting old when…’ can be completed in countless different ways, not least ‘you know you’re getting old when you start beginning sentences with “you know you’re getting old”.’ You certainly know you’re getting on a bit when some films start to look as though you’ve seen them before, just in a slightly different order; which is true of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, notwithstanding the fact that I completed this review before seeing the 1974 original.
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a dispatcher for the New York subway system, disturbed that train 123 has stopped where it should not have stopped and extremely disturbed when he discovers why: the train has been taken over by a violent, sweary and unpredictable hijacker called ‘Ryder’ (John Travolta) and his gang of hijackers for hire. Ryder demands $10 million be delivered to him within the hour, and a hostage – the carriage contains, amongst others, a mother and child, a former paratrooper and a young kid called George (Alex Kaluzhsky) whose interrupted webcam session with the girlfriend offers live pictures to TV news – will be shot for every minute the authorities are late.
Naturally, Garber gets the experts in, including hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) and the about-to-retire Mayor (James Gandolfini); but Ryder warms to Garber and insists on only dealing with him. As the pair get to know each other, the reason for Garber’s relatively low-status job emerges (he took a bung to recommend new Japanese trains) and the police learn enough about Ryder to put a real name to his face, that of an investment banker recently out of jail with more than the ransom money on his mind. But the clock is ticking, and when a crash delays the arrival of the cash Ryder reveals just how ruthless he is; suddenly Garber is thrust into a situation where he has to hand over the money personally, and a breathless climax sees him chasing the robbers through long-disused parts of the subway whilst the train speeds inexorably towards a terrible crash in Coney Island.
I’m not dissatisfied with Pelham 1 2 3 because it’s a heist movie, you understand: heist movies offering something new still crop up from time to time, such as Heat, Inside Man or the flawed but feisty Swordfish. The problem with this specific heist movie is that it is so thoroughly reminiscent of those films you’re tempted to think it has been pasted together from outtakes. Washington’s Garber – the essentially decent man with a blot on his reputation – is no different to his characters in either Inside Man or Out of Time: and because of this you never really believe Denzel is the ordinary guy caught up by events, despite the domestic niceties with the wife (they’ll never use a whole gallon of milk, even a US one!).
Ryder, meanwhile, sees Travolta reprising Gabriel from Swordfish but with a raised voice and a different haircut and beard: are we meant to think of him as less of a bad guy just because he was in Grease once? Given that Turturro and Gandolfini are merely good actors lending weight to cookie-cutter parts and neither Garber’s wife nor Ryder’s accomplices are given any sort of character or plot interest, it’s little wonder that my eyelids started to droop during both attempts to watch the film. Even the hostages – the usual assortment of ages, races, sexes etc. – are bland, with the unnamed child used as the obvious point of tension (nobody in their right mind should give a stuff about George and his sordid little webcam romance).
Tony Scott’s ploy to prevent the viewer from nodding off is to introduce action at every available opportunity, not only via Ryder’s arbitrary countdowns which trigger bouts of well-staged but often completely gratuitous stunt work, but by slowing down or speeding up the film to jolt us out of our comfort zones. Look, it’s not merely a subway train, it’s the subway train OF DOOM! That’s no ordinary police helicopter, it’s the helicopter OF HOPE! And people don’t merely get shot: they get very, very shot. Scott’s kinetic style doesn’t make the film difficult to watch, but the approach already seems dated and it adds little to the atmosphere. Neither does the all-pervasive use of explicit language, which quickly gets boring since it’s inserted into the script for use by all characters equally and therefore serves no purpose other than to make younger viewers giggle.
On top of all that, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 tries to take advantage of the vaguely zeitgeisty notion of Ryder being a Wall St trader gone bad, or since he was already bad, superbad. However, this is patently daft. Even if you swallow the proposal that a share of $10 million might not last you the rest of your life, the 9/11-referring conceit that a hijacked train which doesn’t even stop the rest of the subway trains in New York could nonetheless send Wall Street down ten percent and gold shares* up several thousand percent is clearly idiotic.
I can only assume that the identikit feel of Pelham 1 2 3 is a roundabout tribute to the excellence and influence of the original; which only makes the question of why this re-make was considered a good idea all the more pertinent. Tony Scott did some good work – amongst the dross – but this film really makes me wish he’d stuck to pulp movies like True Romance where he put his talents to use on much fresher material. This isn’t awful, but the whole Denzel vs Travolta thing is just…getting old.
NOTES: For the majority of the film Ryder tracks ‘Gold’ prices whereas the computer he checks at the end refers to ‘Gold Shares Activity.’ If he had been lucky enough to buy very, very cheap shares in a gold mining company before he went to jail, the figures might – just – come near to stacking up. But the film can’t be bothered to explain itself, since it’s too busy crashing vehicles into each other.