Is there a prerequisite somewhere in Tony Scott's contract that his films all have to be terribly, terribly noisy for no particular reason? I suppose if there was one filmmaker who could take a delicious cat-and-mouse thriller - that was made into a superb 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Jerry Stiller and Martin Balsam - and turn it into a cacophonous mess, it would be Tony Scott.
Scott has replaced the wit, nuance and subtlety in the original film with yelling, bombast, some pointless action and noise.
After the screeching title credits, I actually thought Scott's remake showed promise when it settled into telling the story of the hijacking of Pelham 123. I liked the initial interaction between Denzel Washington's Walter Garber - a tribute to Matthau, perhaps? - and John Travolta's Ryder. There were the seeds being grown for a thrilling cat-and-mouse game.
But then Scott's needless wizardry comes to the forefront. The dazzling camera work, the fast edits, the obnoxious music that simply overpowers scenes.
Honestly, one cannot blame screenwriter Brian Helgeland for this. I am sure had Scott eschewed some of the technical razzmatazz for the story, going for substance over style, there might actually be an entertaining picture here.
Then again, Helgeland shares some blame for the story. Ryder is the only hijacker we get to know. The others, including one played by Luis Guzman, are completely forgettable. We only see them shooting guns or walking around the train carriage. They are cyphers and of little use to the plot. Watch this and then consider the 1974 original, where we got to know the other hijackers - they had some depth, they were fleshed-out - because director Joseph Sargent actually cared about delving into his characters.
In this remake, Garber is a civil servant, as opposed to a cop, with a shady past. Washington is up to the task of playing this Everyman character. There's a nice calmness to him, even though Helgeland has deprived Garber of any humor or spunk. Though, in a van attempt to give Garber depth, we have to sit through superfluous scenes involving Garber's wife.
Then, there's Travolta. Is it possible that Travola, like Al Pacino, is fast-becoming a caricature of himself? That was certainly the impression I got from watching this version of "The Taking of Pelham 123." Travolta's performance is so over-the-top that it simply is tough to take seriously. This is over-acting of "Battlefield Earth" (2000) proportions.
The trouble with Helgeland's screenplay is that it is riddled with giant plot holes. It really doesn't take a genius to figure out Ryder's background. But just in case we are too daft to get it, we are given hints as subtle as thunderous gunshots. But if Ryder is supposed to be as smart a person as he is, just consider his getaway plan. It borders on ridiculous. I can see why the other characters might want to abscond with the money, but why on earth would Ryder, given what we know about him? And given what we know about him, why would he want anyone to know what he looks like?
The action sequences are completely over-blown. Some even don't make any sense. One involving a parked car and a cop is utterly pointless. Action scenes have to make sense, there has to be a reason for them. It might look cool to blow things up and have vehicles crashing into each other, but if they don't have any meaning, they make no sense. That is the case in Scott's film.
"The Taking of Pelham 123" is the kind of film that gives Hollywood a bad name. Not that there are not style-over-substance movies that aren't enjoyable. Take Hong Kong actioners such as "So Close" (2002) or "The Killer" (1989), for instance: Despite their style, they still succeeded in being movies that one could get engrossed in. They are thrillers that thrill.
Scott uses slam-bang in a failed attempt to drum up thrills. He and Helgeland had a great chance to update the story and make a thoroughly exciting and captivating thriller with two strong, intelligent men matching wits. Instead, what we have is a boisterous, needlessly noisy, mindless action film that ignores an enticing premise because it is far more fascinated with car crashes than with nail-biting suspense.
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