Tony Scott directs this remake of the Walter Matthau-starring thriller from 1974 with this Columbia Pictures production that pits a transit cop (Denzel Washington) against a group of hijackers lead by John Travolta, who take over a subway train in order to rake in a hefty ransom. David Koepp (War of the Worlds) is adapting the book by author John Godey.
The late Morton Freedgood was a smart writer of populist crime novels which he published under the pseudonym John Godey. A native New Yorker, he created vivid, pulp fiction that was at its best when portraying ordinary men suddenly asked to act in extraordinary ways. His most acclaimed work was the urban-transit thriller, The Taking of Pelham 123.
The story of the opportunistic hijacking of the 1.23pm Pelham Bay subway train, it is a tightly-wound, immensely-entertaining read that was made into one of the most-respected and enduring films of the 1970s. Directed by Joseph Sargent in 1974, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three starred Walter Matthau as the everyman subway controller whose average day is shattered when a seething Robert Shaw and his gun-toting henchmen take hostages and demand $1million. Matthau and Shaw share no screen time until the very climax of the film but are chilling adversaries, lured into a cat-&-mouse mindgame with deadly consequences. They embody classic good-vs-evil archetypes, playing for the highest stakes in the greatest metropolis on Earth. It is a must-own DVD.
Two things are incongruous about the remake of Freedgood’s novel : the contemporary setting and director Tony Scott. Many other problems are laid plain once you watch the film, but for now let’s address the two most troubling conceptual aspects of updating a 40 year-old novel.
Firstly, in the post 9-11 New York City, it’s a patently ludicrous suggestion that four machine-gun toting, sinister looking individuals can walk freely about the most heavily-guarded subway system in the world; cameras monitor every inch of the platforms and myriad tunnels that comprise the Big Apple’s metro rail line yet, despite commandeering a packed train by pointing a firearm through the driver’s window, the hijackers go unnoticed until they start communicating with the control centre. This is but one of many illogical moments that derail the film (in one eye-rolling development, the Mayor of New York takes the subway after it has been commandeered by potential terrorists) but it’s a doozy.
Secondly, Tony Scott. The British-born younger brother of Ridley has lived in his more talented sibling’s shadow his entire career. Ridley is a supreme visualist who displays a deft touch with character (as long as the script is good: Alien, Thelma and Louise – good; Legend, A Good Year – bad). Tony’s visual style is exaggerated mimicry of Ridley’s, as if he is still trying to impress their parents. Ridley finds the essence of a scene and crafts his composition to enhance it; Tony is all bluster as he whirs, zooms, pans and bounces the camera around, as if he doesn’t know what to film or where to look.
He was the wrong choice for a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 because Freedgood’s best passages rely on character-driven psychological tension. The story has the essence of a great two-hander stage play, such is the strength of the original dialogue and the simple construct of the multi-tiered conflict. Not for Tony Scott; he’s been hired to make it a big, dumb, sellable action film and all kudos to him – he has succeeded.
Scott’s ensemble cast appears unconcerned about the subtleties of character they might have enjoyed with a stronger collaborator. Despite bulking up and adding a convoluted backstory to enhance his heroic everyman, Denzel Washington never convinces as the first point-of-contact for the hijackers; James Gandolfini (as NYC Mayor) and John Turturro (as a NYPD hostage negotiator), got to work near home and pay some bills. As the hijacking mastermind, John Travolta seems determined to be seen and heard over his director’s frenetic visual style – shrilly screeching 'Mother****er!" at the end of every sentence and chewing the scenery as a villain of pantomimic proportions.
That this flavourless, witless, artless rehash should materialise only a few years after the 2006 passing of Morton Freedgood inspires the inner cynic. Given the respect his novel has maintained over the decades and the reputation the 1974 adaptation enjoys, it seems unlikely he or any of those involved would have allowed such a hatchet job as Tony Scott’s 'reimagining’. So many reviews of Hollywood remakes have ended with 'rent the original" in recent years, so forgive my lack of originality, but the advice has never been more appropriate.