Remakes tend to come in for instant derision – particularly when the original is regarded as a classic, has a strong cult following, or there seems little need to update the story. There have been quite a few cynical cash-ins over the years, but, to be fair, sometimes taking a great story that has grown a little long in the tooth and reimagining how the drama would play out in the modern world isn’t a bad idea.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 is case in point: using the premise of a well-regarded (but hardly landmark) heist thriller from the 70s as a starting point, but drawing on the technology advancements and social concerns of the twenty-first century, creates about as valid a reason for a remake as you’ll find.
Directed by Tony Scott and boasting an all-star cast, lead by Denzel Washington and John Travolta, The Taking Of Pelham 123 is a retelling of the 1974 film (of the same name) that stared Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.
The drama opens on a gang of armed hijackers, lead by Ryder (Travolta) and including the always-excellent Luis Guzmán, shanghaiing a New York subway train and holding the passengers to ransom for 10 million dollars. MTA Dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) is the unlucky guy who first makes contact with Ryder, with the cat-and-mouse nature of their radio conversations forming the backbone of the film.
The story’s overtones of terrorism seem quite relevant in these post-9/11 times, with obvious comparisons to London’s 7/7 bombings, and anyone catching the tube home from the cinema may just get a little twitchy. Which is probably what attracted Scott and, scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland, to the project. The addition of wireless Internet connections, web cams, cyber crime and media frenzy add a contemporary twist to the narrative – which originally focused on how the hijackers expected to escape with the cash.
It is the relationship between the two leads that really gives The Taking Of Pelham 123 both its dramatic centre and emotional heart. Washington, in particular, gives a typically magnetic performance as the everyman Garber, whose own history is hardly whiter-than-white. Ryder seems instantly drawn to the unpretentious Garber, using him as anmakeshift father-confessor, as the two form a blurred moral yin and yang. Washington manages to breathe real pathos into what could have been a cliché-ridden character. Is there a better actor working in mainstream cinema today?
However, while Travolta throws himself into the portrayal of the unhinged Ryder with all the usual gusto he reserves for his villainess turns, the attempts to turn Ryder into a charismatic gentleman thief do fall flat – he is a cold blooded murderer, after all. And Travolta does seem to think that zany over-acting and excessive expletives are all you need to add ‘edge’ to a character. If anything, Travolta is the weakest link here.
John Turturro and James Gandolfini put in solid shifts as the hostage negotiator Camonetti and New York’s mayor, respectively. Both add dignified weight and believability to the supporting cast, as is to be expected, but their roles do seem a little tacked-on (there is no Camonetti character in the original, for example).
Also, Tony Scott’s direction seems to get a little too wrapped up in visual gimmicks – which seem to be a recurring theme of his recent output. Frenetic, MTV generation editing, full of jagged cuts, slow-mo and fast forwards (as well as some bizarre CG map shots of ransom money in transit, reminiscent of the Grand Theft Auto games) give The Taking Of Pelham 123 the feeling of an extended episode of CSI in places. But Scott does manage to ramp up the tension through more traditional methods during Garber/Ryder repartee scenes, which are far more exciting than any of the action set pieces.
It is the ending, though, that really lets the film down, descending into a ‘seen it all before’ dirge of Americana. After playing it restrained (intelligent, even) for the first three quarters of the movie, The Taking Of Pelham 123 throws off the shackles to become a generic good-vs-evil action film for its finale. Hardly a surprise, but still no less of a disappointment after what had come before. Washington and Travolta’s expanded waistlines (refreshingly ordinary earlier on) also raise a chuckle as they huff and puff their way through the hoopla of the final act.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 is one of those films that does exactly what it says on the tin, offering a solid evening’s entertainment. Commendable acting and an engrossing first hour give way to some typical silliness later on, but the plot is well thought out and rattles along nicely before getting derailed. Not quite first class, but still far from a train wreck.
The Taking Of Pelham 123 opens in the UK on the 31st August.