Sheer Spectacle

The flashy, loud 'Pelham 1 2 3' works as a lowbrow thriller, but John Travolta is just awful

John Travolta is a lousy actor. Let's just be honest about this: I mean, he has an act, but he's not acting. He just spits back the shtick he memorized in Pulp Fiction while quietly praying to Xenu that no one notices. Plus, in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, he has the worst douche-stache I've seen since the 1970s.

Which brings us to the 1970s, one of the Golden Eras of American Filmmaking. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes (all descendents of the glorious Mediterranean peoples) were in their prime and pumping out stunning material. In their wake were dozens of films in the "new style:" gritty stories of anti-heroes and outsiders that explored the consequences of violence and the capacity of the natural world to provide its own special effects.

Among those films was a well-constructed crime thriller called The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In it, four very ordinary-looking and highly professional criminals hijack a New York City subway car and demand a million dollars in ransom. (A million dollars was a lot of money back when people had pubic hair.) Over the course of the film's 104 minutes, doughy police officer Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) carefully sifts through the clues until he can track down the criminals. There are some violent scenes, but there's no flash to them. They're just brief, brutal and terrifying. The climactic sequence is quiet, thoughtful and wickedly funny.

Remaking any movie these days involves taking the basic elements and adding heavy doses of bad-assery. So in director Tony Scott's Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (numbers being way more bad-ass than words), there are lots of car crashes and machine guns, and the calculating criminals of the original have been replaced by obnoxious gangsta-wannabes who like shooting off their guns and razor-cutting their hair.

But the worst thing about the remake (which is actually a decent lowbrow thriller) is Travolta. It's not just his hammy acting; it's the way the part has been rewritten to allow Travolta to shout and sweat and jingle his ridiculous earring. Gone is the quiet professionalism of the original, replaced by a grinding beat in the soundtrack, gimmicky photography, and the devaluation of violence from tension-inducing plot point to sheer entertainment spectacle.

Whatever. Pretty much everyone except Hugh Hefner knows that the 1970s are over. Scott, who specializes in stupid, is also a reasonably adept director who is capable of pacing a movie to keep it interesting. The plot elements are revealed at carefully spaced moments; there are lots of twists that at no point violate the internal logic of the film; and other than Travolta, the acting is superb.

In fact, it's especially weird to see Travolta up against people like Denzel Washington and John Turturro. The latter is especially good as the grim cop, offering a sort of throwback to the acting of the original film. Turturro isn't pretty, and he isn't loud, so he'll never be a big hit with those raised on a steady diet of exploding nipple shots, but he subtly steals every scene he's in.

Other than Travolta, the most annoying thing about this film is the cinematography. Every time the camera goes aerial, the images stutter, which adds nothing to the film except to take the audience out of the narrative. The underground sequences are all too dark and low-contrast. If you're going to shoot in the dark, at least have a few elements in the scene that stand out. Instead, Scott gives everything a hazy, blue wash. Heavy doses of style are fine if they actually serve the film, but Scott uses flashy style for its own sake, ignoring the relation between cinematographic effect and story. I guess that's what people want these days, but if you gave people everything they wanted, then kids would eat nothing but candy, and we'd match trillion-dollar deficits with devastating tax cuts.

It's hard to imagine a world like that. Instead, we have a world where Tony Scott (and Antoine Fuqua and Michael Bay and McG and lots of others) encourage people to substitute yelling for acting. Though, to be fair to Travolta, in this film, the script is full of awful lines that can pretty much only be shouted.

The ending is also a total letdown, as it swaps out the clever climax of the original for something heartwarming involving a gallon of milk. Had it spilled, swelling, manipulative string music would have informed me that it was time to cry. But, again, this is like complaining that Cap'n Crunch cereal doesn't have a subtle mix of flavors. Tony Scott makes dopey action films. On that count, even including the shouting and gimmickry and some tacked-on poignancy, I guess he succeeded. God bless him, really.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is not showing in any theaters in the area.

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