Friday, January 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

The original film version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, directed by Joseph Sargent) is a pretty good genre piece that benefits greatly from the specific time and place where it was filmed. The plot is preposterous, but the way it was filmed displayed a kind of unforced naturalism that sold the whole enterprise. It's one of those rare gimmick movies (Die Hard on a battle ship!) in which the gimmick is almost incidental to the real pleasures the movie provides. It doesn't hurt that Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau aren't conventional movie stars. This has been a minor favorite of mine for a long time. I originally saw it on the late show with my mom back in (mumble mumble). Certainly, the circumstances of when I saw it influence my opinion of the movie, but when I saw it again years later, it still held up. What's really interesting to me at this distance is its portrait of a grimy New York in decline. The seventies were rough on the Big Apple and you can get a sense of collapse throughout the movie, a collapse accompanied by a tired sense of resignation among New Yorkers. This snapshot quality is something it shares with it's 2009 remake, retitled without spelling out the numbers as The Taking of Pelham 123 and directed by Tony Scott, but the New York of 2009 is very different from the New York of 1974. For that matter, the conventions of moviemaking are very different, too.

The plot of the remake is more or less the same. A group of four armed men hijack a subway train and their leader makes their demands to the dispatcher, who they insist stay as their contact rather than the police negotiators. They want ten million dollars (in the original, it was only one million; inflation, I guess) in one hour or they'll execute one hostage every minute. The lead hijacker is played by John Travolta in the new movie. The dispatcher is played by Denzel Washington. Washington is fine. Travolta's performance is seriously overripe. He should be quietly sinister. Instead, he's a ranter. It may be apropos, given the other changes they've made to the nature of the crime and the nature of the criminals--I'll get to that--but it's seriously annoying. The movie adds John Turturro as the police negotiator, James Gandolfini as the mayor, and Luis Guzman as the disgruntled ex-motorman who aids the criminals. It's not a bad cast, Travolta not withstanding.

This is one of director Tony Scott's more controlled films. Oh, he still pumps everything full of steroids--the car crash sequences as the money is transported are entirely gratuitous, for one example--but he keeps a lid on his more excessive stylistic tendencies, if only barely. This is in stark contrast to the original item, which was made with a reportorial deadpan. The style of the new film suits it. The context of the new film is contemporary New York, with it's financial princes and robber barons. Travolta's character, it seems, is one of these. Keep this in mind. Screenwriter Brian Hegeland opportunistically conflates the plot of the original movie with the plot of Die Hard, in which the "terrorist attack" is an elaborate ruse to conceal the real crime. This film was made as the the effects of the 2008 economic collapse were really beginning to hit, and that event underpins both the nature of the crime and the reasons for Travolta's ranting psychopath. He was one of Wall Street's lords of the universe, felled, he thinks, by the interference of the government. As a proxy for the audience, however, he's one of the evil bankers who took down the system and his current scheme is almost business as usual. Again, keep this in mind.

Washington's character has undergone some changes from the original film, too. His character is accused of accepting a bribe, a crime to which he confesses under duress. His function for the audience is different than Travolta's, because Washington's character uses his pathetic ill-gotten gains to put his kids through college. He's an avatar of the middle class losing its grip on the American dream. He's desperate. The movie puts Washington's character on a collision course with Travolta. In the original film, Robert Shaw's terrorist knows that the jig is up and resignedly steps on the third rail. His motives are inscrutable. Travolta, on the other hand, demands that Washington kill him.

Here's where the film really begins to moralize, and it reveals something particularly ugly about contemporary action filmmaking in America. The way this sets up Washington and Travolta as proxies for the audience leads to an intended catharsis when Washington shoots Travolta, but it's not one character killing another, it's one avatar for America taking revenge on another avatar for America, but it's worse than that. Another MUCH better action movie postulated that "it's a hell of thing to kill a man" and "deserve's got nothing to do with it." The Taking of Pelham 123 has no connection to those ideas. Killing another human being is traumatic for any normal, moral person, but in THIS movie, the act leaves Washington smiling, his crimes forgiven by a mayor who tells him that the city will go to bat for him, and it sends him home to the arms of his wife and to domestic bliss, completely unharmed by his actions. Indeed, he's been rewarded for them. For the most part, I find this all to be completely immoral, and since this movie makes a point of moralizing, it kind of disgusts me.


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Castor said...

I absolutely hated Tony Scott's visual excess. While it may been slightly more controlled than some of his previous films, there is really no such thing as shades of excesses. Either you know what you are doing or you are a hack and obviously, Scott is the latter when it comes to editing. There is absolutely no reason to repeatedly make 360 pan around the little booth Denzel Washington is sitting in or make those silly zoom-unzoom cuts on the police cars throughout the movie. I literally wanted to gouge my eyes out every time he did that!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Castor. In principle, I agree with you. In practice, well, the last Tony Scott movie I saw was Man on Fire, and this movie is positively deadpan in comparison. But, yeah, he is a hack.