The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is a film of both style and substance. Alas, the two are at odds; style ultimately dominates, leaving substance unexplored.

The initial premise is similar to Joseph Sargent's 1974 version of the story: hijackers take over a car of the titular New York subway train, demanding money. If they are not paid within an hour, they will begin killing passengers. To complicate matters, the leader, known as “Ryder” (played by John Travolta) will only communicate with one person, a subway dispatcher named Garber (Denzel Washington). Garber, under the watchful eyes of his colleagues and the police, maintains close contact with Ryder. His goal is twofold: to stall the criminals until the money can be collected, and to tease out information that might lead to their capture.

The 2009 Pelham distinguishes itself from its predecessor by expanding the characterizations of both men.

The original Garber was an unpleasant man, but in small ways. He was brusque to the point of obnoxiousness, but his ethics were never called into question. The remake reverses this: Washington's Garber is a personable family man, but is haunted by accusations of serious misconduct. This characterization is wholly successful, and late in the film it effects salutary changes to the plot.

The embellishment of Ryder is less pointed and less meaningful. “Mr. Blue,” the equivalent character in the 1974 film, was a fascinating paradox: a venal, disillusioned man, but also coolheaded and totally in control of the conversation. Ryder is both a darker and a weaker character—he is always on the edge of losing control, but this does not make him more menacing, only more pitiable.

In a more interesting development, Ryder is also given an edge of spiritual evil. He is explicitly identified as coming from a Catholic background, and there are suggestions that he still identifies with the faith (he wears an earring in the shape of a Roman cross). But he seems to have accepted only half the gospel. He believes in original sin, but not in redemption, and invokes humanity's fallen state to disclaim responsibility for his own actions. He is openly contemptuous of God.

Because of this, the film ultimately hinges on a conflict of worldviews: despair versus hope, Ryder's stunted half-Christianity versus Garber's non-sectarian optimism.

'We all owe God a death,' says Ryder. He has ruined his own life, and sees no future but death.

'We each owe God a life,' responds Garber, who has also done wrong and suffered for it, but still hopes to redeem himself.

There is no question of who the audience is supposed to side with: Ryder is presented as physically, culturally, and morally repulsive, and Garber's hope for the future is seen as courageous and worthwhile. It's not the fullness of the Christian message, but it's refreshingly positive.

That, then, is the substance. But it's sometimes hard to discern under the clamor of the film's style. Director Tony Scott uses all the devices of trendy freneticity: hasty camera movements, fast cutting, rapid alternations of slow and fast motion, and a disorienting reliance on aspect montage. This exhausting mix is complemented by random references to '70s cinema: the title sequence is retro, the last shot is a freeze-frame, and in between the film works in a visual quote from The French Connection and gives the hijackers costumes and hairstyles that seem more period than contemporary.

The script takes every opportunity to inject drama, and frequently botches it. There are two car crashes, although the plot does not require even one. A pair of bit characters are gunned down in a welter of overcranked gore that Peckinpah would've found excessive. The score is distracting: a constant barrage of beats and whooshes that erases any distinction between tense and quiet scenes.

The dialogue is plausible and frequently witty, but it is also annoyingly unfocused. One exchange borders on ludicrous: Garber, about to go into a hazardous situation, is on the phone with his wife. She tells him to pick up a gallon of milk on his way home. So far, so good; this is believable as a woman trying to keep a sense of normalcy under stressful circumstances. But then… Garber asks if a half gallon would be sufficient. The mood is destroyed. That line may have been intended as gallows humor, or as an attempt to distract himself from danger by replicating an ordinary, “comfortable” marital squabble, but it doesn't sound that way. It sounds as though he really cares about the milk.

The loose, rambling feel of the dialogue is especially unfortunate; it, as much as the overwrought visuals, detracts from the clash of personalities and worldviews at the heart of the film.



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