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March 16th, 2009:
In "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," Denzel Washington stars as New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, whose ordinary day is thrown into chaos by an audacious crime: the hijacking of a subway train. John Travolta stars as Ryder, the criminal mastermind who, as leader of a highly-armed gang of four, threatens to execute the train's passengers unless a large ransom is paid within one hour. As the tension mounts beneath his feet, Garber employs his vast knowledge of the subway system in a battle to outwit Ryder and save the hostages. But there's one riddle Garber can't solve: even if the thieves get the money, how can they possibly escape?What to Expect:
The original 1974 film "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," itself a filmed adaptation of the novel by John Godey, is a classic gritty crime drama. Quentin Tarantino
brought the film to a whole new generation of viewers when he lifted the whole criminals-named-after-colors from it for "Reservoir Dogs." It features great, restrained performances from squint-eyed masters like Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw and its ending is one of the most celebrated in film history. Article continues below
Given the film's continued relevance and the seemingly inexhaustible popularity of heist/caper/crime films, a remake was probably inevitable. When you remake a classic film like this, the questions are always about how you're going to update it, what you're going to change, and most importantly, who you're going to cast.
An actor needs a lot of things to be successful, and to be an asset to his films. He needs talent, realism, screen presence, and a willingness to put in the work on his character. But an often overlooked quality that might be more important than all of these is credibility. An actor needs cred. And it's hard to define. What is cred, exactly? It's a measure of the audience's willingness and ability to suspend their disbelief and believe his performance. It's his ability to inspire confidence in the audience that he won't let them down, that he'll carry them along with the plot and not make them cringe in their seat. Directors need it too. I'll give you an example of establishing cred. Before "Fellowship of the Ring" the world had barely heard of Peter Jackson, and what they had heard didn't make them all that confident. He didn't have any cred, and he knew it and was smart enough to know that for the film to work, he had to establish it FAST. So he put a seven-minute prologue at the front of the film, a prologue in which he whipped out some truly astonishing visuals and a velvety, otherworldy voiceover. Within five minutes, we all knew that this guy knew what he was doing, and that this was going to be okay, so we could sit back and enjoy the film. He'd established cred.
An actor gets cred by performing well and not being crazy offscreen. He gets it by taking chancy roles, he gets it by getting awards, he gets it by being a professional and taking roles that make us think he's serious about pushing the envelope. Now let's play a game. I'll name three actors, and you tell me which one of them does not have cred. Denzel Washington. James Gandolfini. John Travolta.
You don't even need me to tell you the right answer, do you?
I admit, I feel a little badly about dumping on Travolta
when he's just lost his son. There, I got that out there. But that doesn't mean I'm going to let it stop me. Here's the thing. I knew that John Travolta's career had not really capitalized upon the rebirth he was handed by the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction" but until I had a look, I had no idea just how bad it has been. Are you aware that Travolta's top-grossing post-"Grease" film (adjusted for inflation) is still "Look Who's Talking?" I don't mind telling you, it shocked the hell out of me. And the second-place finisher? 2007's old-guys-on-motorcycles wacky-hijinks flick "Wild Hogs." That's not just shocking, it's embarrassing, not just for Travolta but for the moviegoing public. He's had some decent hits with films like "Face/Off," "The General's Daughter" and "Phenomenon," but his film credits read like a bad joke. Flop after flop after flop. "Swordfish," "Basic," "The Punisher," "Mad City." And, lest we forget, the cosmic joke that was "Battlefield Earth."
The thing is, even when his films succeed, he isn't that good. He chewed the scenery in "Face/Off" while Nicolas Cage carried the film. He's had two pretty big hits recently, but neither of these ("Hairspray" and "Bolt") can really be attributed to him, although his turn as Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" was memorable. Offscreen, his association with Scientology and sometimes wacko statements have made him an object of derision in some quarters. So, combined with his lack of serious, well-acted movie roles and his tendency to really gnaw on the walls, all this has cost Travolta almost all the cred he got from "Pulp Fiction." It doesn't last forever, John. You gotta capitalize. You want to know how to establish cred? Watch George Clooney
. He started his movie career as an actor fleeing a top-rated TV show...in other words, someone that everyone was waiting to see crash and burn. That's not just lack of cred, it's negative cred. He took some ordinary roles, then started taking quirky indie roles, took some rom-coms, did some drama, and became agreeably politically active while cultivating a gentlemanly, civilized persona offscreen. How well did it work? Let me put it this way...Clooney created cred for himself that was bulletproof enough to survive "Batman & Robin," in which he wore a suit with rubber nipples. Rubber nipples. That's cred, baby.
But back to Travolta. These days, you'll look far and wide before you find someone who doesn't roll their eyes when they hear he's in a film. Much like I did when I heard he'd been cast in this remake. At least they have Denzel
. But in my opinion, they have him in the wrong role.
Denzel needs to play fewer good-noble-guy roles. He can do that part in his sleep, and when he steps out of it, he goes all edgy and cool. Travolta needs to not play bad guys, ever again. He goes all ham-and-cheese over-the-top. So in this film they have Denzel playing the Everyman Hero, and Travolta playing the Criminal Mastermind. Excuse me while I cringe. The addition of Gandolfini
as the mayor is nice, but it isn't a pivotal role. Denzel ought to be playing Travolta's role and vice versa. In addition, Washington is playing the role Walter Matthau played in the original film, although in 1974 the character was a lieutenant in the transit police, but the character has now become a dispatcher. Playing into that working-man Everydude persona? Pictures of Washington in unfortunate ill-fitting clothing and nerdy glasses suggest that's exactly what it is. Come on, people. Quit trying to make Denzel Washington dorky and Travolta cool. That's forcing both of them to play against their natures. Denzel just is cool, and Travolta just is dorky. Let them explore that.
The quick-and-dirty plot of Pelham is that a group of criminals take over a subway car and demand ransom money for the passengers' lives. The crime befuddles police, since there is no way to escape because the subway car has a dead-man switch that required a live person to be at the controls for the train to move. The criminals circumvent this and escape, setting the train to a high speed so it'll crash. It's a pretty archetypical high-intensity crime story that takes place over a short period of time; it's often compared to "Dog Day Afternoon" in that way. This genre of film is still popular now, although the dozens and dozens of imitators have caused it to be somewhat watered down. While caper films like this are still made by the buckets, they're often lost in the shuffle. They don't stand out unless they have something extra to recommend them, like the quirky humor and killer cast of "Ocean's Eleven" or the strong word-of-mouth, MiniCoopers and Seth Green of "The Italian Job." For every one of these films you can name that's been a hit, half a dozen others have sunk without a trace into the great buck theater in the sky.
What doesn't inspire confidence is the film's director, Tony Scott
. Wait a minute, I hear you saying. Isn't he a visionary and multiple award-winner? Um, no. You're thinking of his brother Ridley, director of "Bladerunner", "Alien," "Thelma & Louise" and "Gladiator," among other things. Tony Scott is the director of such cinema milestones as..."Enemy of the State." His most visible credit is definitely "Top Gun," the success of which can be attributed less to Scott's workmanlike direction than to that volleyball scene. Talking of the Scott brothers, film commentator and Totally Rad Show host Dan Trachtenberg said "Ridley Scott is constantly ahead of the times, his movies are timeless. Tony Scott is constantly OF the times, his flicks are dated."
So much for an inspiring director. Who wrote the film? Can we look there for some artistic vision? The screenwriter is veteran Brian Helgeland, whose ouevre is...varied. He wrote "L.A. Confidential," "A Knight's Tale" and "Mystic River." But he also wrote "The Order" and...this may be the most damning credit of all..."The Postman." He and Tony Scott also have history with Denzel Washington; Helgeland wrote and Scott directed "Man on Fire."
The original "Pelham" was a model of restraint. It was suspenseful without being showy. It has that near-documentary Friedkin feeling of films like "The French Connection" and "The Conversation." I just continue to doubt whether Hollywood knows how to make movies like that anymore. If it's like the dozens of other heist films, it'll be full of bombastic music, overblown drama and stuff blowing up or blood spurting or Lord knows what else. I mean, come on...in the publicity images, Travolta looks like a street thug and sports a neck tattoo. Robert Shaw was all civilized glare in the original. I still maintain they got their casting memos switched, or else Washington and Travolta got each other's agent's phone calls.
I can't work up much enthusiasm for this film. I seriously doubt any filmgoers will be able to do, either. Even still, it could find an audience strictly for lack of another adult drama/thriller in the field. Right now the film is scheduled for a June 12th release. Its only competition that weekend is the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds rom-com "The Proposal" and some Eddie Murphy film, which, enough said there. It'll be up against the one-week-old "Land of the Lost" but likely not competing with it for audiences, and the three-week-old "Up," which, ditto. Its most direct competition, "Terminator: Salvation," will be in its fifth week of release by then. In an additional stroke of good luck, it ought to have two good weeks of box office before "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" comes along and stomps on it.In Conclusion:
A remake, oh joy. Starring John Travolta, oh save us all. Miscast actors, a classic film to which a remake can only pale in comparison, an uninspiring director and a wildly uneven screenwriter. And all this in the middle of June amidst all the summer blockbuster sturm und drang. It seems to have found a hole in the schedule that ought to give it some breathing room, so I predict that it could be a modest success. I'd be surprised if it's a runaway hit, but you never know.Similar Titles: Taking of Pelham One Two Three
, The French Connection
, Man on Fire