The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Directed by Tony Scott. Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzmán, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli, Victor Gojcaj, John Benjamin Hickey. (2009, R, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 12, 2009
Loud, abrasive, and featuring performances seemingly calibrated to be heard over the cacophonous roar of Travolta's mad, bad overacting, this unnecessary and ill-advised remake of Joseph Sargent's 1974 crime movie in which a group of ex-cons (led by Robert Shaw, playing off a Transit Authority cop essayed by the shaggily brilliant Walter Matthau) stage an elaborate cash-based caper in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. That film, giddily redolent of all that was grimy about the Big Rotten Apple of recession-shattered NYC circa 1974, is a minor classic of the form. It is economical in its direction, thrilling in its use of the casual (but still shocking) urban violence which marked much of Seventies filmmaking, and almost indescribably entertaining, especially if you happened to live in New York City. Scott's update is none of these things, although the script by Brian Helgeland (adapted very loosely from John Godey's novel) works hard to update the core caper into something audiences might relate to in our current climate of economic meltdown. Travolta, in the Shaw role, seems close to an aneurysm throughout – you can literally see the pulse in his temple as he unloads a barrage of gunfire and ceaseless expletives on both the subway hostages he's taken and stoic Washington, who’s cast as the luckless MTA figure who surely shouldn't have gotten out of bed that day. Luck of the draw is often no luck at all, and despite the presence of top-drawer character-actor talent (Guzmán, in particular, is utterly wasted here, while Turturro seems distracted and bored by the whole thing), director Scott fails to locate the pulse of a city once more on the brink of economic ruin. Edited with a disastrously distracting eye toward Scott's ever-increasing penchant for irritating and overwhelming stylistic flourishes (the film seems to have been chopped and cut by someone on an Adderall binge), there's precious little that’s memorable or even exciting about this new, annoying Pelham, which goes off the rails early on and never recovers. Take a cab next time, and while you're at it, go rent the original. You won't be disappointed: Shaw rocked it in ways Travolta hasn't even yet discovered, and Matthau makes Washington's character look like the dull, bureaucratic cog that he is. I love New York (circa 1974).