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Friday, Sept. 4, 2009
'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3'
Washington, Travolta just coasting in subway thriller
Does anyone actually remember 1994 when "Pulp Fiction," and the return of John Travolta to our movie screens seemed welcome, almost like having an old friend back in town? Now, reviving Travolta's career seems like just one more thing we can blame on Quentin Tarantino, along with wrecking Uma Thurman's, and championing the torture scene in modern cinema.
As gangster Vincent Vega, Travolta displayed so much suave charm and effortless cool, it was hard to recall why he had mostly disappeared from the big screen in the first place. After that brief shining moment, though, Travolta's career soon devolved into that of a new Dennis Hopper (circa "Speed"), playing cartoonish bad guys in dreck like "Swordfish," "Broken Arrow," "Battlefield Earth" and "The Punisher."
In his latest take-the-paycheck-and- coast job, Travolta plays a subway hijacking baddie in "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Here he seems to be wistfully channeling his old "Pulp Fiction" costar Samuel L. Jackson, dropping so many f-bombs (of the m-f variety) that he comes off like a child who has just learned to say his first word.
Starring with Travolta is Denzel Washington, who's been in a string of director Tony Scott's films lately, none of them particularly memorable, starting with 2004's "Man on Fire" (OK), continuing with 2006's "Deja Vu" (bland) and concluding with a whimper in "Pelham 1 2 3," a resolutely dull attempt at a suspense flick.
Washington plays a subway dispatcher named Garber who's the man on the phone when Travolta's baddie Ryder calls in his ransom demands after taking a subway car hostage, along with its terrified passengers. Much of the film consists of near-psychotic rambling and threat-making by Ryder into the phone, while Washington goes the other direction, cool and collected, trying to keep Ryder talking while the city police's negotiator (John Turturro) and mayor (James Gandolfini) try to figure out whether to pay the $10 million ransom or storm the train.
This two-hander goes on and on, with little to relieve the incessant dialogue between the two men. There's some business about Garber being under investigation for taking bribes and Ryder being a former broker out for revenge for losing his lifestyle of dating classy Lithuanian "ass-models," but very little actually happens until the last reel. Not to mention the message that regular working guys are as corrupt and compromised as Wall Street high-fliers is probably not the smartest theme for a movie to explore in these post-Wall St. meltdown times. The delivery of the ransom money is needlessly turned into a high-speed car chase, for little reason other than to keep the viewer awake. The problem is, these actors could do these roles in their sleep, and that certainly seems to be the case here; nothing in Brian Helgeland's script makes the cast show their range in any way.
"Pelham 1 2 3" is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and if the new version seems tame in comparison, well New York City — where the film is set — is also a lot tamer than it was back in the day. I managed to catch "The French Connection" (1971) on a flight the other day, and it's incredible to recall how gritty and sleazy the city could feel back then. It's also incredible to recall that a director — William Friedkin, to be precise — could shoot a movie on the streets of Manhattan, that looked like it was actually going down right then and there, even that celebrated high-speed chase with Gene Hackman's car blowing through lights and ricocheting off walls in pursuit of a runaway train.
They don't make 'em like that anymore, and "Pelham 1 2 3" is proof. The N.Y.C. of this film consists of a well-scrubbed and anonymous computer-control center for the N.Y.C. subway, a few obviously stage-managed street locations and a surprisingly grunge-less subway car and tunnel. (Well, there is one rat.)
In order to justify this remake, director Scott makes it modern by, well, having people use the Internet. One passenger on the hijacked train drops his laptop, while his needy girlfriend is flashing her bra at him on an open Skype feed and the camera continues to broadcast a view of the hijacking in real time, which the girl posts on YouTube. And this major plot development leads to . . . well, nothing, actually, but it's kinda cool, dude, right?
This need to bow before the gods of Internet 2.0 hits absurd levels when Ryder whiles away his time on the hijacked train by surfing the net. The viewer may well be tempted to do the same.