The Taking of Pelham 123

Dir: Tony Scott
Star: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro. James Gandolfini

While there's certainly some scope for updating the 1974 original, not least in the technological advances, the longer this goes on, the more of a chore it becomes. John Travolta's performance as villainous train-hijacker Ryder appears to exist solely with the volume cranked up to 11, and the contrivances necessary to turn the film into the mano a mano confrontation Scott wants, just seem silly. Washington is credible enough when he's sitting behind the desk in the New York MTA as disgruntled dispatcher Walter Garber, pitting wits against Ryder. When he's chasing Ryder around the streets of New York with a gun... Not so much. As usual, Scott doesn't seem content to rely on the tension naturally present in the film's proceedings [the first hour is basically one big ticking clock], and insists on jazzing things up in ways that get irritating before the opening credits have ended.

The main area where that doesn't hold true is Washington, who is a credible alternate for Walter Matthau. Unlike Travolta's single-note shriek of a perforance, where what you see the first time he opens his mouth, is pretty much what get, Washington reveals more about his character in each scene, whether it's a discussion with his wife over whether they realy need a whole gallon of milk, or as he agonizes over the details of past indiscretions involving the taking of unwise "gifts." He holds the film together, and for the first hour at least, stops it from degenerating into just another empty thriller. Travolta, on the other hand, is the opposite of Shaw. When reviewing the original, I wrote that his character was "smart, sane and ruthless" - at best, Ryder puts across only the last-named of these. And since the hostages are little more than faceless cyphers, his ruthlessness has little impact. There is a nice angle in Ryder's primary money-making scheme, which isn't the actual ransom, and has a nice degree of plausibility to it. However, it's probably fair to say that most of the good parts, were present in the original, and most of the bad parts, are only to be found in the remake.

[March 2010]

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