I’m a guy that doesn’t actually mind the Greengrassian shaky-cam movement that’s taken over action pics. It’s mildly disorienting, but especially in the context of a Bourne film, it works for me. If I were rolling around the in front seat of a car while it was tumbling over a bridge, or if I were taking Tolstoy to the face, that’s the vantage point I’d expect: Cracked window, knee, stick shift, elbow, steering wheel, pavement, page 312 of War and Peace. It’s what Jason Bourne is seeing, so it feels organic to experience the same shaky, blink, jarringly visceral vantage.
Tony Scott’s style is similar, but more manufactured. It’s the corporate version of the Greengrassian effect: It’s sterile, controlled, edited to within an inch of its life, and spliced together with a riff-heavy score. I suspect Greengrass just throws a digital camera in a car and says, “Drive over that cliff and let’s see what we get.” Tony Scott emulates that effect in post-production, paying some intern in special effects to add some blurs, spill a little coffee on the celluloid, edit some shit out of order, and throw a Pantera riff over the whole thing. To me, it’s the difference between jeans that are ripped and shredded by wear, and a pair of jeans you buy pre-ripped at The Gap. It’s just not the same.
It also weighs down The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 — it’s distracting. And it’s affected, not earned. It feels like it. It’s like buying the new Sonic Youth album at Starbucks. It’s poseurish, manufactured grittiness. It’s particularly problematic in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 because it distracts us from an otherwise competently made film. It’s bad guy Travolta, and it’s Denzel being Denzel, and when you have those two playing off of each other, you don’t need any distractions. You need only to point and click, and let the professionals take care of the rest. If you have the Boston Symphony Orchestra doing Rachmaninoff’s “Theme of Paganini,” you don’t bring out the dude from Jackyl and his chainsaw to add the lumberjack riffs. Say what you want about Travolta — he makes some seriously shitty films — but he’s a consistently good bad guy; apparently, all his acting abilities reside in his facial hair. Without it, he’s useless. But with it, he’s got some bite. And Denzel. I think a drunk guy with half-lids I met at a bar the other night said it best: “Denzel. Duuuude! Denzel!”
I couldn’t have said it better.
A remake of a 1974 film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 — adapted with remarkable faithfulness by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Man on Fire) — stars Denzel Washington as Walter Garber, a NYC Transit dispatcher with enough kinks in his character to make him interesting, but not enough to make you ever doubt that he’s the film’s hero. Recently demoted because of bribery allegations, Garber is on call when Ryder (Travolta) and his henchman (including Luis Guzman, as the brains of the operation) take over a NYC Subway car and threaten to kill one passenger every minute after an hour that he doesn’t receive $10 million.
After that, it’s essentially a countdown movie: A hostage negotiator (John Turturro, in a rare good guy role) is called in; the city’s Mayor (scene-stealing James Gandofini), who has some improprieties of his own, is enrolled to get the money where it’s going, and a collection of high-paid extras are asked to sit in the subway car and look terrified. Mostly, though, it’s a cat-and-mouse relationship action movie, one where Travolta and Washington play a game of brinkmanship. And when Tony Scott leaves them alone to do what they’re paid to do, it’s a solid movie, assuming you actually like to watch one good actor and one great one verbally face off. Travolta, channeling his Face/Off persona, chews up the fucking scenery, alternating between depraved homicidal psycho and sympathetic villain. But honestly: Denzel owns this film from the first frame to the last. God knows why he keeps working with Tony Scott (this is their fourth film together), unless he actually prefers to have his work crapped on by sound effects. But as the schlubby civil-servant everyman trapped in an extraordinary situation, Washington rises above and puts the film on his back.
But Tony Scott is not one to leave well enough alone. He insists on amping everything up, blaring transit horns and murdering you in post-production. But despite that, Helgeland’s no-nonsense script and the outstanding performances manage to break through the stylish franticism, and once the film gains some momentum, there’s even some genuine tension and an ending that’s refreshingly twist free. It’s not a movie that will stay with you; it’s not a movie that you’ll talk about afterward; and it’s not a movie you’ll rush to recommend to anyone. But it’s a competent, suitable summer diversion and, though it doesn’t quite do justice to the original, it doesn’t desecrate it, either.
Dustin Rowles is an incredibly famous Internet personality, whose name can be found scrawled on many a bathroom stall. You can email him or leave a comment below.