The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Carmike 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Look, I'm not making any inappropriate allegations. All I'm saying is that if Tony Scott does have scandalous photos of Denzel Washington, that might explain a lot.
This is what I'm trying to understand: How does one of the most universally respected actors of this generation come to trust this particular director — and his obvious fascination with style over substance — so implicitly? Since their first collaboration on Crimson Tide in 1995, Washington and Tony Scott have teamed up for Man on Fire, Déjà Vu and now this remake of 1974's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, with another film together scheduled for 2011.
It's not that Washington suddenly turns into a hack-by-association in his Scott-directed films. Here he plays Walter Garber, a New York Transit Authority employee who has the bad luck to be on the other end of the radio dispatch when a subway train is hijacked.
A guy calling himself Ryder (John Travolta), leading a quartet of gunmen, has given the city one hour to deliver $10 million. While fears of a terrorist attack spread, Garber and Ryder play the kind of cat-and-mouse game that you expect in movies of this kind.
The original 1974 version of John Godey's novel was no masterpiece, but it was a fascinating time capsule of decaying mid-'70s New York City, as well as a straightforward, Law and Order-style procedural where character nuances were eliminated in favor of brute plot mechanics. In screenwriter Brian Helgeland's version, Garber gets a back-story involving allegations of accepting bribes; Ryder similarly switches from an analytical mercenary to a guy with an ax to grind. More complex characters, better story ... right?
Not necessarily. As gifted as Washington may be, he's almost too charismatic to play the beaten-down bureaucrat demanded here. Sporting a paunch and ugly clothes, he can't sell ordinariness, especially when he's later required to turn into an action hero. Ryder becomes an even bigger disaster, because making him high-strung means giving Travolta license to go into "hammy psycho" mode. Sometimes, as in the deliriously over-the-top Face/Off, that persona can work. Then there's the Travolta of Battlefield Earth, whose villainy involves as much shrieking as possible. Guess which one cavorts through Pelham 1 2 3?
Then again, Travolta could just be taking his Lack of Subtlety 101 cues from his director. Scott has certainly made a successful career for himself over the past 25 years, but his trademark visual shenanigans have grown increasingly tiresome. Scott jerks us through the air with panoramic shots, does slow-motion whip pans through Manhattan streets, offers up blurry and oversaturated interstitial snippets and generally acts like a 3-year-old who doesn't think his picture is finished until he's used every crayon in the box. It's a style that's supposed to generate a sense of kinetic excitement; instead, it generates a desire to check the director's meds.
It's easy to understand the lure of remaking this thriller for the post-9/11 era, where it feels like we're all one incident away from running screaming into the streets. But Scott hasn't made a film about hysteria. He has simply made a hysterical film; you want to shake it by the shoulders and tell it to settle down. Whatever gifts Denzel Washington appears to see in Tony Scott over and over again, he needs to convey to the rest of us, before it's his career that winds up hijacked.