5-Word 365 #005 – The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

In mid-December I got drunk and thought it would be a good idea to watch a movie I haven’t seen before and review it, every day of 2012. These might not be as in-depth of some of my other posts, but if I make it three weeks it’ll be a damn miracle.

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Fat Denzel vs Gay Biker

The first of Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott’s train movies – followed by Unstoppable in 2010 – is a loose remake of the 1974 flick starring Walter Matthau as the grumpy transit cop and Robert Shaw as the ruthless criminal mastermind. It is likeable enough movie that stumbles along thanks to Washington’s central performance in the Matthau half of the equation, as Walter Garber.

Garber was a big-shot in New York’s MTA who has been demoted to dispatcher while under investigation for allegedly taking a kick-back from a subway car manufacturer. But this is Denzel! There’s no way Denzel could be corrupt. Anyway, he happens to be on duty the day John Travolta and his multi-ethnic crew decide to hold a rail-car full of passengers hostage, looking for a $10million payoff from the city. From the very beginning, however, the man who calls himself “Ryder” seems to be something other than your typical stick-up merchant. As it turns out, he used to be a Wall Street investment banker who was caught emptying the pension fund he had control of, did ten years inside, and came out a stone cold murderer. And now he wants to get rich again.

Time for a brief interlude…

Dear Tony Scott,

I love you. The movie world needs directors like you. While your big brother, the knight, can turn ponderous into an art form (it might have been A Good Year but was a fucking boring two hours), you and your other brother Denzel can make two guys talking on a radio into an action scene. You never met a whip-pan you didn’t like. Title cards are at your manic mercy. Your films aren’t necessarily classic cinema (except Top Gun. And True Romance. Man on Fire was pretty damn good too) but they are always a helluva fun time. Don’t ever change.

Yours,

Ryan

PS. I’m still not convinced about Keira Knightley’s lap dancing though.

PPS. Can you please direct Transformers 4?

Where was I? Oh yeah. There are a few problems I have with this film. The two biggest ones are, unfortunately enough, the two main characters. Garber is a bit of a non-entity. Denzel is the star of the show, and brings his usual classy presence, but he plays a complete schlub. Garber does nothing to advance the plot in any way. It feels like the “did he/didn’t he” bribe subplot was stuck in just to make him seem more interesting. In the 1974 original version, Matthau’s Garber was a transit cop, and had a reason to be chasing down Robert Shaw. Here, the mayor does more investigative work than Garber. And in what universe would a police sergeant give a gun to a civilian, who admits to having never used one before, on his way to a ransom drop?

So what about Ryder? Travolta plays a walking affectation, from the carefully sculpted handlebar moustache, to the way he chats up Garber when he brings the money, he just seems so contrived. This guy used to be a Wall Street banker? Somehow I doubt it. Even when he swears it just sounds false.

Finally there’s the random action scene. I guess Tony just started freaking out about an hour-and-a-half-long radio conversation and needed to do something exciting, so the supposedly routine convoy bringing the money becomes a gauntlet through Manhattan; police bikes get t-boned; the car with the bags somersaults over the side of a bridge: it all seems incredibly out of place.

John Turturro and James Gandolfini, on the other hand, are as great as you would expect playing the lead police negotiator and the Mayor, respectively.

So, you probably think I didn’t enjoy this flick. Well, you’re not entirely correct. It, like so much of Scott the Younger’s oeuvre, has a certain knockabout charm that helps you forgive its failings. It won’t have the longevity of the first adaptation of John Godey’s novel, and I don’t think I’d have it in my collection, but as a renter it is an entertaining diversion.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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