The Remaking of ‘Pelham 1-2-3’

Thanks to the miracle of something called HBO, I got to watch a lot of movies I never saw in the theater. Back in the 1970s I thought this was absolutely revolutionary since I got to see older films as well as stuff I couldn’t afford or missed. Among them, I adored The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, largely thanks to the performances of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. I recall being surprised at seeing Jerry Stiller as a supporting character in a drama since I was more familiar with him as a comedian.

The movie was tense and gripping with lovely subtle performances in addition to a mood and atmosphere created by director Joseph Sargent, who actually did better television work than feature films (including one gripping episode of Star Trek).

Once I saw the cast for the remake, I was sold on seeing the film and finally managed to catch it last night. Tony Scott brought the film up to date, using modern technology for the subway system and the passengers and that’s fine. He also totally changed the backgrounds of the characters, adding some new layers to the drama and again that was fine.

In all, the movie works independent from the novel and the original feature. Where it falls down, though, is in creating that atmosphere of tension. Quick cuts and visual pyrotechnics do not replace for lighting, shaded performances and editing to create the feel.  Sure there’s tension, especially watching the SWAT team sweat it out mere yards from the subway car, but it pales in comparison.

The film also suffers from some storytelling problems. There’s a police escort bringing the $10 million ransom from Brooklyn to Grand Central Station. Motorcycle cops surround the car and they leap frog one another to block the side streets and keep the path clear. Of course, a cab gets in their way and later an ambulance comes barreling into the car. I wonder, why didn’t New York’s finest dispatch cars or officers to stand in every intersection between points A and B rather than rely on a motorcade?

Also, when the subway car leaves GCT and heads for Coney Island, it seems to be taking the scenic route through Queens as we watch the train barrel past Shea Stadium after Roosevelt Avenue, heading for Long Island, not Brooklyn. Dumb.

John Travolta plays a good bad guy. In fact, I think he does a better job as a heavy than as a protagonist (especially based on the accompanying trailer for his forthcoming comedy Old Dogs). He is riveting as he bullies Denzel Washington into talking about himself, into discussing morals and religion.

Denzel, ah Denzel. He is perhaps one of the greater underrated actors working right now and I saw that because I just don’t see him in enough good movies. He is a sympathetic everyman that has you rooting for him in every film he makes. His Walter Garber is a guy whop looks after his family, does his job and rises to the occasion when circumstances call for it. He’s not showy and doesn’t flaunt authority but is a cool professional who has a secret that comes out during the progress of the story. Paired with Travolta, they play nicely with one another especially since they do not come face to face until the final third of the film.

At first, it seemed as if James Gandolfini’s Mayor is a bit player to be mocked but in later scenes he actually starts piecing things together that others miss and contributes a key story point and then has a wonderful final scene with Denzel.

The rest of the cast is filled with unfamiliar actors, most of whom get little or nothing to do and it makes me miss the better ensemble of the original, with Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo. Still, it’s nice to see a thoughtful, character-driven thriller during a summer where I find myself strangle unmotivated by the other offerings.

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