Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their art-house bunker, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week they get stuck on Tony Scott’s slow-moving The Taking of Pelham 123 remake.
Henry, since I can’t get in touch with Tony Scott—and I’m afraid if I ever spoke to him I’d get horribly dizzy and nauseous since every conversation he films has the camera spinning like a twister around the speakers—could you please tell me why this remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 exists? I haven’t seen the original, but presumably it’s better than this sleepy subway ride of a hostage movie. Denzel Washington comes as his vulnerable, pity-inducing variant (see The Hurricane) to play Walter Garber, an MTA higher-up disgraced by a bribery charge and demoted to subway dispatcher—his widescreen workstation looks like a Web 2.0 prototype of the wall-sized iPhone manipulated by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.
John Travolta reprises his role as the baddie from Battlefield Earth, but dons his costume from Wild Hogs and swears a lot in a misguided attempt to make us think that the competitive disco dancer from Bay Ridge is actually a slimy iBanker named Ryder—a name that adds to the impression that he got lost on his way to a casting call for a bikesploitation movie. In fact, aside from the inherent fun of New York location shooting (although Scott nearly ruins that too, at one point using Google Maps for a fly-over that clearly called for a helicopter), James Gandolfini’s character is the most enjoyable thing about Pelham, a nameless financier-turned-mayor whom we’ll just call Tony Bloomberg.
Speaking of financial shenanigans, isn’t the moral of this virtually action-less “action” movie that playing with the rules of global capitalism is okay, as long as you’re not too greedy? Walter and Ryder have both taken money that wasn’t theirs, but the former is a nice guy with a wife, mortgage and tuition-needing kids (he’s a healthy participant in the economy) whereas the latter is a convicted white-collar criminal, a sleazy, greedy Wall Street ticker-checker and—as if that weren’t bad enough—from New Jersey. These caricatures of financial villainy give this new Pelham an air of revenge fantasy. Is Scott tapping into the cultural trauma of a post-Bernie Madoff, recession-minded New York that has completely lost faith in its finance experts?
Oh, Ben, it’s always vexing when a gritty classic gets a thoughtless Hollywood reboot, and this Taking of Pelham is a classic example: the 1974 original was a hilarious snapshot of NYC in economic crisis; the latest is a lame, clueless portrait of the contemporary city. (I’ll answer your question in a moment, but let me get there first.) The hostage situation, and all the Denzel screen time, inevitably—and unfortunately, for Tony Scott—invites comparisons to Inside Man. In that film, Spike Lee’s hostages were marvelously authentic, like the one worried about whether he’d still get to see Pedro pitch that night or the Sikh hostage arrested by a profiling police force. In contrast, one of Scott’s hostages videoconferences with his girlfriend on his laptop. Have the filmmakers ever been to New York before, let alone ridden on the subway?
But there is at least one detail that separates this remake from its forebear that feels (somewhat) right. In Joseph Sargent’s original, no one takes the hijackers seriously; the passengers laugh when they threaten to kill them (a wino remains passed out during much of the commotion, and several passengers need the threats translated into Spanish.) A crusty supervisor asks, “What do [the passengers] expect for their thirty five cents? To live forever?” But everyone in this exhaustingly straight-faced film takes the hijackers seriously from the beginning—because this is the humorless NY of today, post-9/11. The movie sure is “zeitgeisty,” as one of The L’s other Bens, Mr. Strong, wrote in his review. Travolta and his cohorts—one Hispanic, the other two…Chechens?—are repeatedly called terrorists by the media et al., which they resent because terrorist is a synonym for Arab, and they ain’t Arabs. “Do I sound like a terrorist?” Travolta asks. If you have a gun you do, racist?
But The Taking of Pelham isn’t much concerned with race beyond the simplistic—Denzel’s black man taking out his angst on Travolta’s white man, a.k.a. The Man. And, certainly, it isn’t about gender, because hardly any women, apart from a few mothers and sweethearts, grace its dizzying frames. (Appropriately, the film opens with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” on the soundtrack, also an apparent admission of guilt on the filmmakers’ part.) The movie’s main concern is class, namely how the upper classes fuck the working class. Didn’t we just go through something similar with The Hangover? Except here privilege is criticized rather than celebrated, which is good I guess? The first to die is the Brooklyn Irish motorman; next is a gone-to-seed vet (black, natch). Denzel takes bribes because he can’t afford to send his kids to college. Pity the working man! Meanwhile, Travolta, the erstwhile stockbroker, is the cause of everyone’s trouble (just like the stockbrokers in real life, yeah?) and faux-populist Tony Bloomberg is offered a chance to exchange himself for all of the hostages, which he declines. A billionaire is worth more than a few dirty straphangers. So, to answer your question (finally), the movie is definitely part revenge fantasy against the money changing power brokers—except the mayor gets off scot-free—but then the flipside is that it’s also part condescending victimhood-fetishizer. Boo hoo, poor you.
Well, now that you’ve cleared up Scott’s touristy take on New York class politics in the aughts, can we talk about how boring this action movie blockbuster is? Going in I, like our colleague Jesse Hassenger, had visions of crashing subway cars, thrown passengers flying through the air or falling on deadly third rails (of which no mention is ever made, though I’m told it figures prominently in the original) and fire-filled tunnels—something like Speed transplanted from L.A. to New York. The only part with an out of control subway car, though, resembles a fourth rate version of an identical set piece in Spider-Man 2. The most laughable of Pelham’s laughable action sequences, meanwhile, involves an NYPD motorcade ferrying $10 million in ransom money from Downtown Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal. The rushed police drivers—who to be fair were probably disoriented by editor Chris Lebenzon over-chopped style—cause at least three unnecessary accidents, one of which undoubtedly kills a cabbie. Scott doesn’t care so much about working-class immigrants, though, and the motorcade roars onwards.
In that crash-laden urban race and a few other scenes, Pelham almost accuses the NYPD of incompetence. John Turturro has a bit part as a hostage negotiator, which he plays as a barely straight-faced version of his comic relief character in Transformers. The first time he talks to Travolta, the specter of his Italian-American heritage drives the venture capitalist to off an Irishman. Later, when the cops catch the two “Chechen” not-terrorists in the middle of Park Avenue trying unsuccessfully to hail a cab—probably the one the motorcade preemptively took out earlier—Scott quotes the climactic deaths of another soon-to-be-remade New Hollywood favorite, Bonnie and Clyde.
To be fair, the officers don’t hit any of the several hundred New Yorkers watching the gridlocked shoot out. The NYPD trains good marksmen, but they don’t train good runners. The fat officers dispatched to the final confrontation (on the Manhattan Bridge bike ramp I use almost every day, neat!) take an absurdly drawn-out minute to run 100 feet. It’s okay, though, because as with Spider-Man, the good upstanding citizen subjects do their part to help out. In the end, Pelham felt to me like a propagandistic intimation to its audience to be happy with their lot in life (no matter how unfair), and always defer to authority. Am I exaggerating Scott’s reverence for the forces of order?
The absurd scene on the Manhattan Bridge was a lot like that one in Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Scott seemed to be getting a bit silly near the end, including a ridiculous shot of Turturro saluting Denzel while piloting a helicopter. Anyway, I think you are exaggerating: I thought the presentation of authority was a bit underhanded. Since they were always screwing shit up, as you noted, Scott’s cops was far more Keystone than Kerik. It’s a bit provocative to portray the NYPD as bumbling screw-ups, no? Especially after 9/11?
And speaking of undermining authority: Travolta’s whole plan revolves around manipulating the stock market—he’s really not a terrorist after all, because his aims aren’t political—and making hundreds of millions of dollars off of buying put options before his hijinx makes the market take a big hit. Did you know a similar plot is a cornerstone of the 9/11 Conspiracy movement? Like Shooter, Taking of Pelham sneaks some motifs from the 9/11 Truthers into mainstream Hollywood fare. And so even if it’s an idiotic bit of phony New York class war fantasy, at least it’s a little subversive.
Special Bonus: The original The Taking of Pelham 123 (Joseph Sargent, 1974), all of it
(photo credit: © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)