Friday, June 19, 2009

New 'Pelham' doesn't hold up to original

Some films get better the longer they linger in your mind. The original 1974 version of “The Taking of Pelham 123” starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw is one of those films. Other films that went down OK during viewing turn rancid bouncing around your cranium. Unfortunately that is the case for the new version of “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

I need to thank director Tony Scott for making “The Taking of Pelham 123” if only for bringing to my attention the original film, which I had not heard of or seen. It is an excellent thriller. Doing a direct comparison with this new version only further accentuates its flaws.

The remake of “Pelham 123” isn’t an awful film. It has some good qualities, largely supplied by the always interesting Denzel Washington, but it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The premise, involving hijackers taking a subway car and giving the city one hour to get them $10 million in ransom money or they kill a passenger for every late minute, is intrinsically interesting and hard to foul up entirely.

Washington stars as Walter Garber a career transit employee who is slumming it as a dispatcher because he is suspected of taking a bribe. John Travolta, who has provided excellent villainy in films like “Face/Off,” is Ryder the mastermind behind the hijacking.

Remaking a film successfully is tricky business. Being slavishly faithful to the original – like Gus Van Sant’s ill advised shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho” – makes the new film pointless. A fresh spin to the material needs to justify the redo, but different doesn't mean better.

Scott’s version of “Pelham” adds needless back stories for Garber and Ryder and subtracts the original film’s cynical, sarcastic humor. The attempts at subtext to the plot are unnecessary. Instead of being a story of a heist it becomes the story of Garber’s redemption.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River”) tries hard to establish the tired idea that Garber and Ryder are different sides of the same coin. The cliché line: “you and I aren’t so different” is even thrown in for good measure.

The film should be focused solely on the heist, how to get the money to the hijackers and how Ryder and cohorts are going to escape unnoticed from an underground tunnel. That’s all the film needs to grip.

Scott is a talented director that in his last string of films including “Man on Fire” and “Domino” has developed his own unique, aggressive visual style, but it doesn’t fit this material. His shaky, blurred camera work and over editing is distracting as are freeze frames telling you how much time is left before the deadline lapses.

The film is at its strongest when the camera work becomes less frantic and focuses in on the back and forth between Washington and Travolta. In these scenes, Scott creates some genuine tension. There’s a taut scene in which Travolta threatens to kill someone unless Washington admits something.

Once the initial deadline passes the film doesn’t seem to know where to go and rushes through the escape. The end sequence just de-evolves into a by-the-numbers chase and the final moments of the movie send a bizarre message that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

It is the acting that carries the film over its shortcomings and at times makes the film work when it shouldn’t. Washington is just so good at playing cool and composed under pressure. Travolta is at times too manic, but as in the past he makes a good villain. There is also strong support from John Turturro as a hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini as the mayor.

My best advice would be to wait until the film comes out on DVD and do a double feature with the original. That could be a lot of fun and could stir lively debate as to what works and doesn’t work in each film.

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