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Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

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Despite my general indifference toward Tony Scott's taut, but largely uninspired remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, I'll be one of the first to stand up and defend the director, championing some of his most critically reviled offerings and calling out those who tend to display a prejudice toward genre films in general.

In fact, I'll anger the naysayers one better: Tony Scott is an artist who brings much more verve, originality and overall quality to his medium than does his overrated older brother, Ridley. The younger Scott has been continually criticized for his hectic visual aesthetic; speed manipulations, whip-quick editing and breathless camera hurtling are his bread-and butter. But Scott's films are among the few pumped out by the Hollywood machine that earn and are even strengthened by their hyperactive pacing and stylistic choices. This is because Scott is a consummate auteur, nearly always in control of his own special-FX maelstroms. See 2005's Domino, a flawed and convoluted, densely plotted actioner-on-steroids that succeeds by the sheer force of stylistic fervor it musters; it's fueled by a myriad of aesthetic modulations and a striking use of color that directly correlates to the emotions of its characters. And take Deja Vu (a film I myself underestimated when reviewing it on its release), which relies on ghostly sci-fi visualizations to fuel its emotional conflict in ways that far best brother Ridley's own psychological sci-fi favorite Blade Runner.     

Deja Vu is a particularly relevant point of reference when discussing Scott's latest, which alters the original's title slightly; now The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Both are bettered by the considerable talents of Denzel Washinton in their respective leading roles, an actor who possesses a humility, a stoic, and quiet strength and honesty that well-compliments the modest means of Scott's storytelling and classically drawn characters. And, like Deja Vu, Pelham revels in technological advancements with a focus on surveillance – a theme that pervaded both the former, essentially an exercise in voyeurism, and Domino in its Reality TV show commentaries – that informs the aesthetic choices Scott makes. Take, for example, the claustrophobic and humiliating nature of its central character's desk job, emphasized via a massive glowing billboard symbolic of looming responsibility. It's an intentional aesthetic choice that many will write off as mere flashy distraction.

Washington plays the soft-spoken Walter Garber, an NYC subway dispatcher who becomes inescapably entangled with a bombastic high-jacker calling himself Ryder (John Travolta, tattooed on the neck with eyes and veins abulge), tasked with negotiating a hostage situation. The set-up again speaks to Deja Vu, where Washington's detective developed a relationship with the object of his investigation through a futuristic screen, allowing him to peer into her past life. The communication between Ryder and Garber is also limited; this time by the auditory connection between the subway's radio and the dispatcher's microphone. It's a noteworthy emphasis on the distorting or even damning effects of communication through technology. The near entirety of Pelham keeps this focus: the film is largely comprised of the ongoing dialogues between its two principals, their faces shot in intense close-ups (an admittedly annoying visual motif Scott would do well to ditch). Through their conversations, we learn that Garber was once an MTA big shot, and that after he was accused of taking a bribe was demoted to his work-a-day position. Washington, even working within his limited environment (for at least two thirds of the film he doesn't leave his cubicle), ably conveys Garber's internal struggle as he wrestles with moral convictions. And each time his character plaintively insists, "I'm just a guy," his every-man statement could be read as thesis for the film's dramatic pulse.     

In addition to criticisms over his stylistic choices, Scott is also often accused of "cliched" depictions of modest characters undertaking heroic acts for the sake of their own atonement. However, it's evident in Scott's filmography that there is a very spiritual undercurrent to his work. In this sense, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 can be seen as the conclusion of a spiritual trilogy that began with 2004's Man on Fire and continued with Deja Vu. In each film, Washington takes on the role of Scott's morally conflicted characters, all three haunted by prior sins or transgressions. There's a very Christian ideology present: the need to redeem the spirit through selfless, righteous action. Pelham takes its religious convictions one step further than the prior two films; whereas Washington struggled against largely faceless evils before, here Scott introduces a struggle of faith between both his two principles. (This is evident in Ryder's observation that his cramped, commandeered subway car "reminds me of a confessional.") Unfortunately, this provocative thematic implication never really ignites or goes anywhere; instead, we're left with Travolta's frustratingly one-dimensional and shrill "villain." Ryder is a cartoon; he practices a dubious code of conduct and lectures about stock trades and corporate corruption – relevant economic commentaries only name-checked here. 

Further perplexing is Scott's comparatively staid visual style in this film, at least in regard to all that takes place between its amped opening credits (a characteristically bonkers assault of aesthetic tweakery) and chaotic last act, which is so frenetically assembled that it's difficult to determine what exactly is going on (not unlike many other Scott productions). The majority of Pelham though is not driven by special-FX at all; instead, Scott favors a succession of talking heads deliberating over the various conflicts of this procedural's plot. Tension is maintained throughout (a byproduct of those claustrophobic close-ups mentioned earlier), but it's tough not to compare Pelham to Spike Lee's hostage-negotiater Inside Man, which bests Scott's film both stylistically and in the inventiveness of its plotting. But the most egregious of missteps here manifest in noticeably forced action scenes – on the way to deliver the requested sum of 10 million dollars to Ryder, there are not one, not two, but three police car crashes. And in a dubious approach to violence, as Scott undercuts his own morally-conscious ideals. (One scene of ludicrous brutality witnesses two of Ryder's cronies being shot to pieces in super slow-motion.) Again though, this is the norm in a Tony Scott movie: over-the-top displays of action making for sometimes uncomfortable bedfellows with earnest sociopolitical commentaries (a formula paramount to this filmmaker since at least 1998's Enemy of the State).

On a less critical plane, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 succeeds as a tense thriller, ratcheting up suspense and keeping the stakes high as it barrels toward its appropriate finale. The film is further admirable for placing emphasis on the struggle of its every-man protagonist over the clipped rhythms of its plot (a headache-inducing complexity which, if one really considers Ryder's motivations, is pretty silly). It's a well-made film mostly of a consistent and agreeable style, and it rarely suffers from pacing problems. But it's derivative (it is a remake after all) and lacks the jolt of energy and enthusiasm that invigorates Scott's best films (1993's True Romance as well as the aforementioned Washington-Scott collabs Deja Vu and Man on Fire). But those who dislike Tony Scott's prior films may find his latest more digestible; it is, after all, the least characteristic film from this divisive auteur in quite some time.

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