The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

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*. Why remake a good movie? Why not remake a movie that you recognize as having had real potential but that failed for any one of several clearly identifiable (and correctible) mistakes?
*. Sometimes the producers will say that what they’re doing is less a remake than an update on an idea that needed to be made more contemporary or kitted out with the latest special effects. (For what it’s worth, at the end of his DVD commentary Tony Scott says he “never saw this film as a remake” but as a “re-invention” and “contemporizing” of an old story.) Sometimes it’s said to be a return to an original concept (usually a novel) that the earlier movie missed out on. But whatever the rationale, the remake of a popular classic runs a lot of risks, including arousing feelings of not just disappointment but betrayal among fans of the original.
*. You already know all that. But moving aside from generalities, why remake (reinvent, revisit, reimagine) this particular project?
*. I ask because I don’t think The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was a movie that cried out for a remake (and I’m not overlooking the fact that this was the second remake, coming after a 1998 TV-movie adaptation). The original was a character-driven film that made use of two basic sets: the subway car and the control room. I’m not an expert, but thirty-five years later subway cars and tunnels certainly don’t look very different, and the only difference in the control room is all the display screens. So there wasn’t much that a bigger budget and more production value was going to add. And the plain fact is that we don’t do suspense as well as we used to because today’s audiences (or at least the mass audience this film was aimed at) don’t have the patience for it. Come to think of it, I don’t think Tony Scott has the patience for it either. He’d rather just spin the camera around faster.
*. Which brings me back to the question: Why remake this movie?

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*. I want to expand on that last shot I took at Scott about twirling his camera around faster as a substitute for ratcheting up the tension. Here he is on the DVD commentary: “as the tension built the camera moved faster, my edits became a little more frenetic, and the same with the music and the sound effects.” This is so much a staple now of filmmaking, at least in some circles, that it’s taken as a given. But is it true? Does faster camera movement, frenetic editing, and up-tempo music increase suspense and tension? Or wouldn’t long takes and silence be more effective? Personally, I find that in a situation that is already dramatically tense a slower pace increases my anxiety, and that silence in such a situation can be unbearable.
*. The main change to the story was to bring Ryder and Garber together for the third act, a move that marks another stage in the shrinking of the story. David Godey’s novel was very much an ensemble piece packed with more than a dozen major voices, pitting the gang up against an entire civic bureaucracy. In the 1974 film they consolidated a lot of the parts to focus on a handful of personalities. In the 1998 version there are really only the two good guys and two bad guys.
*. In 2009 we’re down to the two leads. Indeed, on the DVD commentary writer Brian Helgeland spefically refers to his conception of it as “a two-man play.” Ryder’s gang is irrelevant: his number two, Luis Guzman here, is the first to die, and his accomplices are just nameless Albanian bad asses with a couple of lines, played by non-actors chosen for their threatening look. The character of the cop hidden among the hostages is dispensed with entirely. Among the good guys James Gandolfini is a convincing mayor of New York and John Turturro is restrained as the hostage negotiator but neither has any real purpose in the story. Denzel Washington’s Garber is the only person who counts.

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*. Unlike most other reviewers, who feel he has no grasp of evil, I rather enjoyed Travolta’s performance here, and his re-imagining of the Ryder character. Unfortunately, I didn’t buy how stupid he was. He gives his identity away when he should be playing his cards even closer to the vest than Robert Shaw’s ice-cold Mr. Blue. Once the authorities find out who he really is, he’s screwed. Perhaps he’s still a little stir crazy, but I found it incredible that he didn’t have more discipline.
*. It’s odd that of the three filmed versions of this story only the first had a sense of humour, and it was also the most realistic. That may signify something. Scott describes (and partially at least dismisses) the original as “very much a kind of 70s caper movie” while saying his own film is “an attempt at making something very real, very dangerous, post-9/11, you know, but with insane characters.” And yet it’s his version of the story that is the least believable, post- or pre-9/11.
*. There may be moments in this movie where they try to be funny. The online girlfriend insisting that her hostage boyfriend tell her that he loves her is one possible example. But I only found her stupid and annoying.
*. It seems a little rough that the black Airborne guy and the black conductor both get killed. Is this a slasher film?
*. When told of the hostage-taking crisis the mayor decides to stay on the subway he’s riding and conduct his business from there. He argues that the subway will get him where he’s going faster but this is (a) questionable; and (b) means he has to get his briefing and discuss his options in public; and (c) is presumably without cell phone service for at least part of the time. So . . . no. And why doesn’t he use a helicopter to transport the money rather than the motorcade? This is not “very real.”
*. I usually complain about contemporary action-thriller movies looking too slick, but this one looks terrible, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Instead of presenting a genuinely grungy underground everything just looks murky. Aquarium lighting prevails in the subway and for some reason there are a lot of shots where we’re stuck looking through dirty glass.
*. By far the worst thing about the look of the movie though is the constant shifting from different kinds of film and film speeds. This was something Scott went crazy on at the end in a vain attempt to sell us on an out-of-control speeding subway car. The problem they had to overcome was that regulations forbid having the cars go above a certain (slow) speed (apparently around 25 mph), but even with Scott “pulling out all the stops” to “manufacture the speed” it just never looks like the damn thing is going very fast. “It works,” Scott says on the commentary . . . and immediately adds in a doubtful voice, “I think.” I was laughing at the end.
*. The effect of all this is to make the movie look cheap. This is a disaster for an expensive remake with A-list stars because, as we all know, a twenty-first century action film is nothing if it doesn’t look like it burned through a budget approaching the GDP of a small country. I mean, I’d like to think there’s still a place for well-written suspense thrillers narrowly focused on a pair of characters engaged in a life-and-death game of cat and mouse, but I don’t think there is any more, at least in Hollywood. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a film suffering from an identity crisis: trying to remain true to the grubby drama of the original while injecting the proceedings with a shot of contemporary adrenaline. But it gets lost somewhere in-between.
*. I’m not sure it was even a good idea in the first place. I’ve seen the original many times, but I don’t think I’ll ever watch this movie again. Unless it’s remade.

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