Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123: Grade C

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzman, John Turturro, James Gandolfini; Director Tony Scott.

I never saw the 1974 original, so I took this remake on its own terms. Hijackers (Travolta and Guzman) take over a NYC subway car and hold 17 hostages, demanding 10 million dollars. Washington is the train dispatcher who becomes default hostage negotiator, a role he has played before. Turturro is the “official” hostage negotiator who tries to muscle in on Washington, but Travolta won’t have it. Gandolfini is hizzoner, who must come up with the money. The money is transferred, most of the hostages are saved, the bad guys almost get away, but not quite.

The story is extremely weak, with innumerable non sequiturs, absurdities, loose ends and contradictions. The basic plot, as described above, is basically boring. The obvious attraction of the movie is the spectacular special effects and great photography of New York City. The sound engineers obviously had collected tons of authentic train sounds, and they make sure you hear them. Pseudo-dramatic music, and traffic are equally deafening, triple the level of the dialog. This is a very noisy movie. You will need your mute button. The visuals are very good, for the most part, although some shots near the end plainly look like models. The stunts/special effects are the usual car crashes in the city with taxicabs flipping end over end. Happens all the time in New York, I’m sure.

Travolta plays an excellent psychopathic bad guy, enjoyable to watch despite the stereotype. Washington plays himself. Gandolfini turns in a sincere, believable, non-hammy performance. That’s the good part.

But the plot is so implausible, it is very difficult to stay interested. If Travolta is actually doing a stock market manipulation, what does he need the hostage money for? If he didn’t already have the money, how did he make the stock market bet on gold? Why does the money car coming from the federal reserve have a police escort? It is obviously useless for anything but bright lights, loud engines, and sirens, since the convoy has three spectacular fatal accidents on its short trip. Couldn’t the police have just turned all the lights red? How do the police identify two random-looking men on the street as bad guys and proceed to shoot them to death? Did they have “Bad Guy” stenciled on their foreheads? And so on.

The movie is obviously about car crashes and sparks flying from the wheels of trains, not plot development, not character exploration. It will be successful among children and child-like minds as yet another immature action movie. Just what we need.

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