The Motion/Captured Review: ‘The Taking Of Pelham 123’

06.13.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/Columbia/Sony Pictures, Stephen Vaughn

Here’s my first question:  after you see this film, be honest with yourself.  Do you want this same filmmaker to remake “The Warriors”?

We’ll get to my answer at the end of the review.

Last week, I was vacationing, as you may know if you read part one, part two, part three, or part four of my Vacation Read.  I just like saying “Vacation.”  You’ll have to forgive me.

My parents were in town, and my mom told me that she was jealous of my dad going with me to see a press screening of “Gran Torino” in December.  She wanted to go to a press screening.  She ended up going to two while she was here, but the first of them was on Monday night, at the Grove, where we saw “The Taking Of Pelham 123.”  After the movie, my parents told me first how much they enjoyed it, and then asked me for my professional opinion.

Generally, I liked it.  There are things about it that tip it towards being worth seeing.  I have some hesitations, but it’s just my basic reaction to the stylistic road that Tony Scott has gone down at this point.  He has a particular palette of visual tics and signatures that make him Tony Scott circa 2009.  He’s pushed it too far at times, as in “Domino,” but he’s been working towards this for as long as I’ve been watching his work.  “Beverly Hills Cop II” is on a continuum with “The Taking Of Pelham 123,” visually speaking, so I can’t really complain since I know what I’m getting when I see a Tony Scott film at this point.  All that’s really changed is how hard Scott works his Avid.  I would say to anyone who is aware enough of Tony Scott’s work to say that if you like what he does at all, this is a fairly solid Tony Scott movie.  He often allows movie star moments to turn good scripts into irritating chopped salad, though, and this is definitely an example of that.  Still, if you are willing to ride out that insane third act, I think the undeniable friction of John Travolta going to head to head with Denzel Washington is just right, the sort of movie star chemistry you hope for when you hire people.

[more after the jump]

The set-up is classic.  An MTA dispatcher notices a train acting funny.  Then the train goes off schedule completely.  And a call comes in.  Someone’s taken the train.  And they’re going to start killing passengers if they don’t get money.  In reading the reviews of this film, I notice there’s been a lot of ink spilled in “Pelham” reviews so that people can go on-the-record about the original film by Joseph Sargent.  The differences between the two are so vast that any point-by-point comparison seems ludicrous to me.  Sargent’s film is very much of the ’70s.  It’s a character-driven thriller, a slow fuse that’s more about the behavior on display that the story itself.  It should be no surprise to anyone that despite the superficial similarities between that version and this new one, the way they go about their business is totally different.

There’s still some nice character work going on.  In particular, I like James Gandolfini as the Mayor, and Gandolfini finds some unusual ways to color in this stock archetype that made it work.  Both Travolta and Washington do exactly what they were hired to do, investing these characters with the particular type of charisma each of the men is known for, and the best moments in the film are just about the back and forth between them.  But where the movie can’t quite deliver is in the story department, and in particular, there’s some third act choices (I don’t believe one second after Denzel chooses to pick up a gun and chase the bad guys instead of just getting away while he can) that seem to be motivated by the servicing of movie star egos instead of any sort of story sense or character reality, and that’s a shame.  By the time John Turturro shows up and gives a nonsensical wave from a helicopter, I wsa trying not to roll my eyes, but it’s just a case of not knowing when to stop… and again… that’s Tony Scott in a nutshell, so how upset can I get?

Given the choice between the original or this one, it’s not a contest for me, but since I don’t have to make that choice, I can appreciate this one as a decent summer movie, and a better-than-average effort by Tony Scott.  I suspect it’s the sort of film moviegoers won’t retain, but that they’ll enjoy while it’s in front of them, and considering how much my parents enjoyed the experience, I’d say it’s a safe recommendation across the board.

And as far as whether or not I want to see Tony Scott touch “The Warriors,” my answer at this point is “Why not?”  The original was so over-the-top loony anyway that all he can do is make an excessive bag of crazy out of the material, and that seems like it’s right in his wheelhouse.  So bring it on… Warriors, come out and PLAYYYYYYAAAAYYYYYY, indeed.

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