As I waited in line this evening, I wondered what play on words was going to take centre stage in this review. The Retaking of Pelham 123? The Remaking? The Double Taking, The Piss Taking, The Forsaking – but long before the film reached its end the appropriate one sprang to mind and reluctantly I abandoned the perfect rhyme. I’ll get to it in time.
Four men board a New York subway train armed with automatic weapons. Taking control, they park it at a strategically defensible point of the underground system and proceed to make their demand: ten million dollars, or nineteen dead hostages. Their leader will only talk to one man, the controller who first picks up the line – a man himself under scrutiny and suspected of corruption. As hostage negotiators and city mayors run hither and yon to prepare either pay-off or take down, a battle of wits develops that only one man can win – but it seems neither of them is telling the truth…
Some people can’t leave well enough alone. Some people go further, and crap on the shining golden legacy of their infinitely betters. 1974’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is, I think I’ve said before, one of those classic, classy adventures that make genre film such a joy to experience. It is populated with recognisable, real-life personalities, has a seemingly simple criminal plot, and puts them together with a cheery seventies charm to create a fun and effective little thriller. It is just as much fun now as it was the first time I saw it, and I imagine it was no less great when it first came out, a month and a half before I was born. 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 fucks it all up completely. No surprise, true enough, these things never are; but when I think about that original movie and then consider how unbelievably poor in every way is this festering abcess in the anus of cinema, the weeping voice in my head sobs not Why? – because we both know why – but How?
How did they fuck it up this bad? Could it be, partly, what they did to Garber’s character? Not content with transport cop Walter Matthau’s irascible stranger, bargaining with the bad guys and solving the case, they have to give Denzel Washington a wife, and a family, and a shadow in his past to conveniently become central, and then give him a heroic gun, handshake-forgiveness and a great big bottle of fucking milk. Could it be that? Or it could be, partly, the casting of John Travolta as the villain, in which he channels that same, identical, over-the-top villain he always plays – replacing Robert Shaw’s controlled, coldly murderous but almost honourable cypher with yet another loud, grinning, cocky prick? Could it be him?
Or could it be, mostly, the script, which while retaining the barest of bones from its source manages to destroy every element of simple originality that came before on the way to turning it into a cross between a poor man’s Die Hard and a beggar man’s Collateral? In which a trainload of simple but realistic character roles are transmuted into a trainload of screamingly obvious clichés. In which the third of the original’s holy trinity of significant parts, here gifted to a fine actor in Luis Guzmán, instead of having almost the final word is tossed aside with barely a line uttered. Could it be this?
Or could it be the director? I rarely know what to say about the quality of film direction. Acting, editing, cinematography, writing – yes, these are all directly perceptible; but how can you judge exactly what the director brings to a project, except when it’s that indefinable something that identifies what tends to be called the “auteur”? Lots of directors have their own signature air, but you don’t have to watch (it is now time) The Raping of Pelham 123 for long to recognise who was leading the sexual assault.
And it is an assault, a debasement of something witty and flavoured and worthwhile in favour of something derivative and styled and trivial. For this mindless, shameless drive to waste money rehashing the true classics, for abandoning any pretence to originality in story, art or craft and degenerating into no more than a crass, pathetic, cash-point of an industry, Tony Scott is exactly what Hollywood deserves. He has nothing in his bag but glammy bling and he never has had anything else. There’s nothing he can offer that couldn’t be done exactly as well by a fresh-out-of-film-school dickhead except, by dint of his “big” name, be a disproportionate drain on the budget. Smack-down soundtrack. Over-cranking whip-pans across Manhattan like it’s Google Earth, complete with the bloody location labels. Stop-frame time checks as a substitute for rising tension. Pirouetting car crashes. “Snappy motherfuckin’ dialogue”. Yes, the script is almost without exception a great echoing void of meaningless drama and total non-character, but it took Tony Scott to perfectly articulate it as the loud and shiny vacuum that it is.
This film is an absolute fucking embarrassment.
It’s not a forgetting someone’s name as you’re about to introduce them embarrassment, because those moments can, sometimes, become funny. It’s not a waking up as you piss in the bed embarrassment, because there’s no-one there to see that happen and everyone is going to see this. It’s not a standing up to sing your solo and forgetting the words embarrassment, because it was executed as it was planned. No. This is a getting to fourth base on your big date and when she kneels down to peel off your brand new Calvin Kleins she finds an inch-thick skidmark that reaches to the waistband embarrassment. Because the 2009 pointless remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 is nothing but shit from start to finish.