Washington acting like a person
Director Tony Scott ought to put up a statue to Denzel Washington in his sculpture garden, then pray to it at least three times a day to express his gratitude for the way the actor saves his cinematic ass time and time again. Because Den-ZEL, the excellent Den-ZEL, is way, way too good for Tony Scott. He shouldn’t be spending his time and talent grounding Tony Scott’s nonsense in reality. But he keeps doing it: Man on Fire, Deja Vu, and now the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123.
You know how you can always tell a Tony Scott movie by its pointless attempts to be modern and urban and noirish with the lurid cityscape shots and montages of people walking hereCUTand thereCUTand standing in doorwaysSMASH CUT FLARE TO WHITEand the dizzying 360 degree pans around people who are sitting there not doing a damn thing but maybe talking on the phone but it’s supposed to show how crazy and disconnected everything is now, and all the while the soundtrack’s going CHOOKA-CHOOKA-CHOOKA.
The overall affect is like grandpa trying out the latest hip-hop moves, amusing for a little while, then embarrassing, then unbearable when he refuses to stop. Because Tony Scott doesn’t actually have a strong feeling for modern urban life, it seems to me, beyond what he might’ve read about somewhere. He knows it’s supposed to be fast and dangerous, high-tech and alienating, but he never seems to come up with a non-generic representation of that. The New York City he gives us in Pelham 123 is an amazingly bland Everycity, and the critics are screaming about what a travesty that is, when the first film version was such a specific portrait of grubby, run-down, near-bankrupt early-‘70s NYC.
Travolta and The City
But right there in the middle of all that Scottian phonus balonus is Denzel Washington aka Believable Man. “Don’t worry, Tony, I got this,” I imagine him saying, as he sits down at the subway transit display board and pretends to be an overweight, bespectacled, browbeaten, working-class guy wearing a hideous sweater-vest, named Walter Garber. You buy the whole thing, even the sweater-vest. And gradually this plausibility spreads out from the actor’s anxious eyes and too-soft, go-along-to-get-along voice, and you start to believe all sorts of surrounding crap. You even feel an intermittent sense of suspense. Because of D. Washington, you’re somehow able to endure the bad action scenes: the police car that doesn’t just crash like speeding cars do, it rolls over and over in a show-offy crash-tacular, and the street shoot-out that’s so lamely staged it looks like a circular firing squad doing one disastrous test-run.
Beats me how he does it. Den-ZEL!
The Taking of Pelham 123, based on the 1973 pulp novel by John Godey, is about a small band of criminals with a big plan to hijack a subway train. Nice plot with a certain logistical fascination: you take over the train, you hold a single carload of people hostage, you paralyze the city, you get the big payoff, but then how the hell do you get away, trapped underground with every exit blocked by platoons of cops and the whole city on red-alert? The 1974 film is a lot more riveted by the procedural difficulties on both sides, the criminals versus the arrayed forces of the city trying to avoid a bloodbath, cynical cops, weary subway workers, the putz mayor and his put-upon aides, etc.
Hard to get away with those old-time procedural movies nowadays, I acknowledge that. People seem to be less and less interested in just watching unadorned scenes of characters doing things that are tricky and involved and require concentration. I recently showed a class a famous sequence from the 1955 Jules Dassin heist film Rififi, a complicated thirty-minute break-in conducted in dead silence. The air was thick with snores.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Payback, L.A. Confidential, The Postman) presumably had the bright idea to make the new version an extended showdown between Garber and John Travolta’s Ryder, the watchcap-wearing, neck-tattooed, mustachioed ex-con with a cunning plan. (God, villains are boring lately. Can’t we get some new types of villains? Mere topicality—Ryder’s a former Wall Street trader plotting to manipulate the stock market—is insulting.) The other members of the ensemble fade into the background. Ryder’s gang is just a couple of random guys with guns. This two-character focus is regrettable, because it means we have to listen to them airing their built-up back-stories through supposedly revealing anecdotes, lugubrious confessions, and nauseating pop philosophy. And how do you liven up tons of footage of Garber and Ryder sitting around talking on two-way radio, if you’re Tony Scott? That is correct: 360 degree pans, my friend.
In the 1974 version, everything is blessedly pared-back and businesslike. Nobody knows or cares if Walter Matthau’s Garber is morally compromised himself while negotiating with the hijackers, or if he has a wife waiting at home worrying about him in a fetching manner. And there’s no way Robert Shaw’s cold Brit mastermind is going to fall for the old let’s-get-acquainted-Mr.-Hijacker routine while waiting for the money to be delivered. This leaves plenty of time for the rest of the characters to come into focus, such as Martin Balsam’s motorman who’s joined up with the criminals but doesn’t have the stomach for it; young Hector Elizondo as the thug so nuts he was rejected by the Mafia; Jerry Stiller (Ben’s dad) as the jaded transit office drone, and assorted other memorable players as subway passengers, transit cops, and government flacks.
It’s not that Scott doesn’t have great actors that he could plug into those roles. He does. Luis Guzman as the crooked motorman, James Gandolfini as the mayor, John Turturro as the head of the hostage negotiation team, etc. They just don’t have much to do. Helgeland has written them some odd, rote, eh-whatever roles that make you think the monetary compensation offered to these actors must’ve been astronomical. Though perhaps Turturro was thrilled to play a complete empty-suit after decades of strenuous character-acting. “Really, I don’t have to do anything but stand there looking somber and saying, ‘You can do this, Garber’? Sign me up, I need a vacation.”
Perhaps it’s not fair to go on and on about the 1974 Joseph Sargent-directed version, but it’s a pretty memorable film, making it hard not to compare the two. Love it or hate it, that movie’s such a coherent view of life as a shit sandwich that it makes Tony Scott’s haphazard modern-mash-up seem even sillier. The look of the first Pelham is a ‘70s-era film specialty: grainy, dirty-looking cinematography with a color scheme that crushes all hope, ranging from grey to beige to mud-brown with an occasional jolt of kill-me-now yellow. This goes perfectly with the jaundiced-looking, unhandsome actors. Baggy-faced Walter Matthau sets the standard of non-beauty for the whole cast.
Shaw and Matthau running the gamut from grey to brown
The transit center office and the subway cars and tunnels are equally worn and seedy, everybody is routinely rude and uncooperative with everybody else, and the only precise, disciplined, natty people seem, at first, to be ruthless Robert Shaw and his gang in their tweedy disguises. That breaks down too, of course. Even the streak of sentimental humanism in Pelham ’74 is smeared through with petty rottenness. People suffering from the flu, with its miserable, repellent, commonplace symptoms, snuffling, sneezing, complaining, hacking up phlegm—that’s central to the film’s plot and worldview.
But on the other hand, to be fair, the new Tony Scott version has…Den-ZEL. And he can sell anything. At the end, Turturro’s character literally salutes him, from a helicopter yet, this being a Tony Scott film loaded with inane expensive junk that makes you cringe, and you have to admit he deserves it. Carried the whole load on his back, he did! Denzel Washington, American hero! Now somebody reward him with a good film!
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