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Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009)

dir: Tony Scott
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Ridley Scott’s less talented brother keeps getting work, which is okay, I guess. I don’t know the personal circumstances of Tony Scott’s life, but I imagine he has people to support, children, wives and mistresses and such, or rentboys, blackmailers and dominatrixes. Who knows. The point is, even after the atrocity to the eyes and ears that was Domino, he still gets work.

Here, in a remake of a pretty good flick originally, Scott mostly tones down the irritating editing and filming techniques that have made his more recent flicks virtually unwatchable. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw assayed the roles the first time round, and they did an okay job. Denzel’s up for the job of playing a craggy-faced blue-colour working man ‘hero’, but they really could have gotten someone better for the Robert Shaw role.

Why? Well, all that John Travolta brings to this particular role is the way his voice goes really high-pitched and whiny when he gets angry, and that he says “motherfucker” at virtually the end of every sentence. I don’t have a problem with language, in fact I love that kind of language. It makes my heart go all aflutter.

Travolta has played a villain a few times, most notably in his own life, but especially in stuff like Battlefield: Earth, Broken Arrow, and Swordfish. Is he a good villain? Well, he’s not a particularly good actor, so you do the math. His character here goes by the name of Ryder and is good at math, and is madly determined to take over a New York train, presumably for a ransom of ten million dollars. And he has a tattoo on his neck, and, as we all know, people with tattoos on their necks are very, very tough. And they say ‘motherfucker’ all the time.

That day, in the train set controller’s box, a loyal, hardworking blue collar stiff under investigation for bribery by the name of Walter (in honour of Walter Matthau, who’s dead and doesn’t care) Garber, played the same way he plays every role by Denzel, slowly comes to realise that his day is going to just keep getting worse.

The set up is component without being amazing, and the timeframe runs almost like real time, to give the flick that treasured episode of 24 feeling, except without the growling Kiefer Sutherland running all over the place and torturing people. Garber and Ryder get locked not so much into a battle of wits so much as a battle of who can pretend to give a shit about the common man the most.

Ryder spends most of the film menacing the passengers in the train carriage with his fearsome swagger and his naughty neck tattoo, but really he’s just yelling motherfucker into a radio, communicating with Garber and occasionally with John Turturro, who plays a NYPD hostage negotiator who doesn’t get to negotiate shit. He does take time out to at first accuse Garber of being in on it, and then bolstering his ego with little equivalents of “good job, you’re doing great, just great.”

Garber, or more correctly, Denzel, spends the whole flick acting like he can’t believe people around him can’t see that he’s just such a wonderful fucking guy. There’s this sublime scene where, after the equivalent of getting on his knees and fellating Ryder over the radio, his supervisor tells him, with the hostage negotiators on scene, Garber is welcome to go home. Denzel stands around and keeps looking back like, “You, you’re sure about this? Me? You want me to walk out of the scene and be off-screen? Me? Academy Award winning me?” He then takes a few steps, and looks back with the same goddamn body language, practically pointing at himself, incredulous that they’re asking him to leave.

It’s a scene that made me laugh out loud, truly. This competent and unambitious action-y flick is entertaining enough, and I actually found myself enjoying it, because I had no expectation that it was going to be anything more than it was. And I got exactly that: Travolta screaming into a radio, and Denzel playing his usual flustered but noble self.

It must be getting boring for Denzel to do movies these days, since they’re only ever asking him to perform variations on a theme, and he’s happy to collect the paycheck. But there’s no real sense that he’s having fun the way that he was in that dire flick Training Day, which at least had him doing his best impression of Al Pacino in Scarface.

Denzel has also been working closely with both of the Scott brothers, having played the lead in the recent (and very strong) Ridley Scott flick American Gangster. I’m not entirely sure why he signed on here for any other reason than the presumably tens of millions of them.

So if the story is fairly generic, what else does it have going for it? Well, there’s this curious theme about government corruption, or about the government turning on and abandoning people in its charge. I know, it seems like a long bow to stretch. But both the protagonist and the antagonist have been, to lesser degrees, accused of financial malfeasance, and what it motivates them to do is significantly different. It convinces one guy that taking a stack of people hostage and threatening countless other lives is justifiable, especially when it will result in a hefty payday. It convinces the other that he needs to risk his life in order to make up for his perceived crime (since he never really cops to it).

Also, the mayor himself gets involved in proceedings, played with Bloombergian aplomb by James Gandolfini, who is a New York mayor who hates giving speeches, doesn’t like the people of New York, and hates that he has to catch the train every day as part of his PR obligations. Instead of sticking too much of a knife in, they get him to at least seem intelligent and not completely self-interested.

He also gives a curious little speech at the end, which fulfils the curiously post 9/11 requirement that every film set contemporarily in New York has: the need to convince New Yorkers and the rest of America that they’re not going to drop the ball again. Personally, I doubt any of the people in equivalent positions could stop the effects of gentle rainfall, let along another catastrophic attack, but I guess the need to keep reassuring people is seen as vital. Especially when the stock market is so sensitive, eh?

From an action perspective, or from a cat-and-mouse kind of perspective, I wouldn’t expect too much. Travolta’s character would be too loud and too obnoxious in either a pantomime or even as one of the dickheads from Jackass, but he does enliven scenes somewhat, though there’s often this pause where you can tell Travolta couldn’t think of what the dialogue actually was, and had to repeat, screaming the same inanities, punctuated, of course, with ‘motherfucker’ and ‘brother’, just to make himself seem down to earth and of the common people. Boy, does he fail at that, but he does entertain, which is what we paid for.

Tony Scott resists the impulse to fuck up most of the film with the annoying editing techniques that are becoming his stock in trade: techniques that made Man on Fire harder to watch, and rendered Domino unwatchable. He’s like a Michael Bay-in-waiting, just waiting for the chance and the budget to really get revenge on America for winning the War of Independence. He can’t help himself towards the end, and it makes something straight forward seem like it’s being viewed through the lens of a migraine, but it doesn’t predominate for too long.

It’s unclear whether the rapport between Ryder and Garber really made any sense, or whether all of Ryder’s rantings, which sounded like a cross between some of Joe the Plumber’s media statements and Sarah Palin’s undoubted campaign speeches from now until 2012, were meant as a smokescreen in the same way that his plan, which is all about obfuscation, was bullshit too. The plan itself, in retrospect, makes no fucking sense at all, especially since it requires a level of planning, personnel and effort that otherwise could have been achieved much more easily with no personal risk with something I won’t mention lest the noble men and women of the National Security Agency get involved with my life in these post-Guantanamo, still-rendition-happy days. Suffice to say, sure, it’s needlessly complicated, but these kinds of heist/hostage flicks depend on that kind of thing to stay interesting and keep the momentum up.

I will mention that a crucial element of the ending to me seemed like it had been changed after audience testing, being the fate of the innocent passengers on the carriage hurtling towards Coney Island at something like 80 miles an hour. Just as a little physics lesson to the filmmakers: If you stop a vehicle going that fast instantaneously, the energy from the vehicle’s momentum is transferred to the passengers inside, who would, on this planet with our gravity, become a cosmopolitan, multicultural, multiracial jam as befits a New York train. I suspect they know this, but that ‘little’ moment did leave me shaking my head in disbelief.

This flick only occasionally reminds me of one of my favourite flicks of this type that had completely over-the-top performances from two known scenery-chewers, being Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson in The Negotiator. The thing is, seeing as it’s one of my favourites, even I have to admit how utterly implausible the whole flick is, and just how utterly impossible most of the story ends up being. I still liked it though, and even though this is a pale imitation of such a formula, seeing as it has little in common with the original flick it is allegedly based on, I didn’t mind this flick too much either.

It’s not gourmet, but sometimes you don’t feel like the filet mignon and the Grange Hermitage wine, you want a burger and fries and some cask wine. This, my friends, is a greasy handful of heart disease and throat-burning goon juice all in one, for which there’s an excellent time and place. I call it late Saturday night.

6 times the line “Gerber, baby” made me laugh, too out of 10

--
“So, who the hell did you fuck to get this job?”
- “Myself... was easier than it looked.”
“Fucking yourself always is.” – pure poetry in motion, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009)

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