on their tv show reviewing under siege 2: dark territory, siskel quoted fellini, who said that showing a train in motion is surefire entertainment. and since the second tony scott/danzel washington train movie “is more than a movie, it’s an experience!”* i decided to check out the first scott/washington train ride.
actually i need to clarify. i wouldn’t want to be misquoted by calling the taking of pelham 123 (2009) a “ride.” for most of the movie, the subway train is actually still (which only proves fellini knows what he’s talking about). also, the movie itself is neither fun nor action packed enough to be a ride. this is actually based on a 1974 thriller of the same name(starring walter matthau, robert “jaws” shaw, martin “psycho” balsam, george costanza’s dad, and raymond’s mom), which was based on a book. there was also a 1998 tv movie. so no, it was not supposed to be action packed. while the 1974 version is no classic, it’s a rather understated mystery/whodunit. it was more about the identities of the villains. if i remember correctly, (um…spoiler alert) it even ended with one of those freeze frame where inspecter matthau figures out who the bad guy is. in fact, in the original, the villains refer to each other by color, just like in reservoir dogs.
whether you’ve seen the original or not, or if you’ve only seen the trailer to the ’09 version, or just read about it, you pretty much know the premise of the movie. bad guy travolta takes a new york subway train hostage and asks for ransom money. washington as the good guy tries to free the hostage. in fact, it takes less than ten minutes for the movie to introduce this.
so we have a fairly typical situations with hostages, demands of money, drop offs. the hostages on the train, from what i can see, include a wall street type in suit, a mother with a son, a black guy, a cowboy, and a teenager with a laptop ichatting with his girlfriend who’s not above flashing him on webcam. i didn’t see any native americans, asians, inuits or mayans…etc. there’s also a couple of non-speaking female characters with white earbuds. the movie did not show whether the earbuds are connected to anything. the ipods are open to interpretations. i guess that’s all part of updating the script to modern times and (pandering to) the young demographic. see, laptop, webcam, phantom ipods, we’re hip.
while the movie mostly consists of travolta and washington talking to each other, in separate locations, it also features wasted supporting characters played by james gandolfini as the mayor, luis guzman as one of the bad guys, and john turturro playing a less ridiculous version of his transformers character.
it is a shame though, that the movie moves the way it did. after the initial setup, there is a brief glimpse of hope for the movie, involving the washington character’s backstory. it was not only interesting but actually quite moving. and it was done mostly by danzel doing a monologue speaking into a mic with a few prompts by the travolta character. it all takes up a few minutes of screen time. washington’s rather excellent throughout most of the film as a working man with a family. he dropped most of his mannerism and dissolved into the character. too bad it didn’t end up going anywhere in the movie. and the travolta character, yes, we know that he’s taking hostage for ransom money, but throughout the movie small hints keep dropping that he’s after something else, or have an ulterior motive(he keeps checking his laptop, he even orders his goons to set up a wireless connection for him in the subway tunnel), that didn’t go anywhere either.
which brings us to the worst thing about the movie. the travolta. it’s a performance that’s distracting pretty early on in the movie. i very rarely criticize or single out actor/actress in a movie, but this is just that special. i’ve never really had a problem with his performance like most people. broken arrow, first villain role in a john woo movie, not great but tolerable. face/off, perfectly cast as/opposite nic cage. battlefield earth, not that distracting considering its sci-fi elements and other failures in the movie. swordfish, appropriate for what it was. but the problem in this movie is that while travolta is acting like he did in those movies, everyone else is giving a pretty realistic performance. it is even more outrageous considering the backstory the screenplay gives his character.
this 2009 version is directed by tony scott. in your head, you’re making assumptions. it will be color-tinted. edited the shit out of. words flashing on screen accompanied by sound effects. shots sped up and slowed down. all the techniques that are ripped off by every other direct-to-video/asylum movies and csi: miami episodes. michael bay has learned well. what i don’t understand is why, since travolta’s character demanded the money within one hour, michael bay sr. feels the need to show us, in words on screen, how many minutes there is left til deadline. it’s especially insulting considering these words usually appear a few shots before or after a clock is shown, and they make a point to show the time when the whole “taking” starts. even if you really suck at math, you can still guesstimate roughly the minutes within an hour. it feels doubly insulting at the end when the minutes and hours doesn’t even matter. it’s not really necessary to do something in your movie just because every other action movie has done it.
another thing you may be thinking, since it’s a dog day afternoon type situation, and tony scott is mostly an action director, how will they add action scenes? this movie does it in the most awkward ways. most action scenes in the first two acts are mostly cars crashing into each other as police and such trying to deliver money to the subway on time. since cars are going really fast in a tony scott movie, they are going to crash. this is how they shoehorn in the action sequences. these action sequences would have been easier to digest except for the fact that the mayor’s aide told the mayor that blocks of streets are blocked so that the money could get to the subway on time. i can’t really prove this but, if such a terrorist-like situation occurs in post 9/11 new york, i would like to think that blocking streets and traffic would/could actually be accomplished, without cars crashing in stylistic fashion. and as far as i can remember, the mayor’s aide has never been established or implied as a liar or terrorist, so the “i told the mayor the streets have been blocked/cleared but it actually hasn’t teehee” excuse doesn’t work here either.
while most of the movie has been uneventful and pedestrian for all involved, the third act is where it jumped off the track, so to speak. washington’s character up until then is portrayed as a working/family man who’s been working for the metro system his whole life. first he doesn’t want to be there. then he has to be there because travolta killed a subway driver he knows. then he calls his wife when he finds out he’s the one travolta wants to drop off the money, and he mostly did it to repent his past. in fact, someone has to teach him how to use a gun. this is all well within the development of his character. all of a sudden(well, not really that sudden considering it’s a tony scott movie with two major stars), he acts like john mcclane: running around traffic, jumping over train tracks, being in a car chase, and commandeering cars like he’s going after jeremy irons’ hammy american cousin. the whole killer/heat they-are-so-smilar-but-they-are-on-opposite-side aspect is so one-sided that it feels more like a travolta-has-a-crush-on-washington homoerotic love story than the comradery in those movies. in the end, it just feels like a bad idea to begin with to have tony scott to direct a mystery with action after all, no one would expect a john woo sci-fi or a james foley action movie to be any good.
*david blaustein, abc news radio