The word "classic" is thrown around a bit too carelessly these day when it comes to films, making it some sort of magical adjective used to describe movies that by some arbitrary set of sensibilities have been deemed worthy of being classical. Unfortunately, not every film that is called a classic really is a classic, as some films, while being great are simply just that, great. For any film to truly be a classic, it needs to reach a level of excellence that all movies strive for, but few ever achieve. And then decades later, if the film in question still holds up--if the writing is still finely crafted, the acting still solid and capable, and the direction still effectively evokes the sort of emotional response it was intended to evoke--then and only then can it be considered as possibly being a classic. Understanding this is crucial to understanding why the original 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic.
Based on John Godey's novel, the original version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, as well as the inferior 1998 television remake and this most recent version directed by Tony Scott, deals with a heavily armed gang of criminals that seize a New York City subway train, demanding cash for the hostages. The original was a tense thriller that pitted Zach Garber (Walter Matthau), a detective for the New York Transit Authority, against the cold-blooded gang leader, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). Under the tightly structured direction of Joseph Sargent, the original Pelham moved at a quick pace, relying heavily on a well written script, pitch perfect performances by the entire cast, and such a minimal amount of action it's hard to believe the movie qualifies for the genre. But as far as action crime thrillers go, it doesn't get much better than Sargent's vision of Pelham.
In the 2009 incarnation of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, John Travolta leads a team of gunmen as Ryder, a barking psychopath demanding ten million dollars for a subway car full of hostages. Where Robert Shaw played the gang leader as a levelheaded sociopath with ice water running through his veins, Travolta plays the role like a bipolar bulldog with rabies. Stuck on the other end of the radio, trying to keep Ryder from blowing a gasket and killing hostages, is subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). Formerly a bigwig in Transit Authority, Garber has been demoted to dispatch pending an investigation into charges he took a bribe. He is man who has given his life to the subway system, and gotten little in return. Faced with losing his job and his status, Garber becomes the unwilling simpatico of Ryder. When hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) replaces Garber as the disembodied voice dealing with Ryder on the radio, the gunmen responds by killing a hostage. Soon it is clear that Ryder will only deal with Garber, which then raises suspicions about Garber's role in the heist.
Throughout all three version of Pelham, people speculate as to how the criminal hopes to get away seeing as how they are underground in a subway tunnel. A similar thinking applies to this remake in that you can't help but wonder what can be done to the original story that hasn't already been done. The very nature of Pelham's storyline, and what makes it so effective, is it's lean narrative: Bad guys take hostages on the subway and demand money, while good guys try to figure out how to stop them. Just as the characters are limited by being inside a subway train and the dispatch command center, so too is the story limited as to where it can go.
In an effort to cover new territory and set itself apart from the other filmed versions of Godey's novel, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 takes two very distinctly different approaches. First there is Tony Scott's direction. Anyone who has sat through Scott's style-over-substance directing knows that few directors get more in the way of the story they are telling than Tony. In the past, his now trademark use of everything from slow motion to speeding up the film to quick cuts to all sorts of visually overloading stimulus has helped mask the fact that films like Domino have truly sucked. Unfortunately, Pelham is probably the best story Scott has been attached to since True Romance, but the director seems to think that his flourishes of style will bring some extra special sauce to the meal, when it most definitely is not needed.
The film also seeks to cover new ground by mining the characters for more depth. Garber now has a wife and backstory, while Ryder also has a history that reveals who he is and what his motives are. The need to explain every detail and motive has become a problematic trait of many contemporary screen villains. Sadly, it seems like the days of bad guys like Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue, who simply show up and wreak havoc with little or no explanation, have gone away. Instead, our cinematic evil must now be explained, taking much of the mystery--and therefore the evil--out of the monsters that scare us.
The added character depth doesn't do much more for Pelham other than prompt a noncommittal shrug and the passing thought of, "I guess that worked." It does, however, give John Travolta plenty of material to mine as he takes his performance up and over the top in a manic performance that seems to be as all over the place as the mental state of his character. Travolta's performance goes from effective to laughingly ridiculous, often within the same scene and sometimes even within the same line reading. Balancing out Travolta is Denzel Washington, who turns in what is probably his best performance since The Manchurian Candidate. Washington packs his character with emotional density, but doesn't play it all over the charts. Both actors seem to be working to shed their movie star personas and get back to some good old fashioned acting. The only problem is that Washington does it better than Travolta.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is not a bad film, but it also isn't the great film that the original version was. Scott's style-over-substance direction keeps the film moving at a quick pace, but since the story itself is fast paced, the visual stimuli is unnecessary overkill. And while Brian Helgeland's script adds depth to the characters, that too isn't really needed. The result is an entertaining film that chooses to be more than it needs to be, but as a result diminishes its own effectiveness. For what it is, the film is entertaining, but it will never be the classic it once was.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]