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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (The)

I kept wondering “What would Edna Turnblad do?” I’m sorry but I couldn’t help myself. Looking at John Travolta in his latest movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, was just too much for me to handle without conjuring up Big John in his sweeter (and even bigger) days. As 1960s hoofing housewife Edna Turnblad of 2007’s Hairspray, Travolta was the epitome of ever-buoyant charm ~ a loving wife and mother, but this time around he has shed his 5X pantyhose (as well as his oft-denied hairpiece!) and added both a distracting neck tattoo and an even more distracting 1970’s porn moustache and goatee to create a rugged (though de-rugged) urban terrorist by the name of Ryder “with a ‘y’” in an attempt to let moviegoers know that he is back, Baby. There’s no more “girly-man” living in him. No, this movie star is all man, just like he was telling his best friend Tommy Cruise one night last week when they were in West Hollywood together shopping for pearl necklaces without either of their wives in tow!

So to prove his manliness in
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Travolta’s self-named Ryder and a trio of gunmen hijack this mid-afternoon subway train and cleverly unlatch then strand a single car of the entire train in a tunnel between 23th street and 28th in Manhattan, no small feat in anybody’s book. In John Godey’s, as a matter of fact, it’s a technical exercise that is described in detail, and fine-tuned in a 1974 film version starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and then again in a 1988 television movie with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio in the leads. Apparently the plan was to crank up the spooky factor in each remake because there aren’t many who can out-creep D’Onofrio but Travolta, and he does do a good job at that, at least when it comes to screaming and spitting a lot. Not spitting as in on-the-ground-and-you-deserve-a-ticket-spitting, but more like screaming-so-much-there’s-rage-leakage-spilling-out-spitting; still it’s enough that in a few scenes I felt sorry for his number one henchman, Phil Ramos (Vermont’s own Luis Guzmán; Beverly Hills Chihuahua), because poor, evil Phil showed up for terrorism that day without his raincoat. I know, I know. He figured he was working in an underground tunnel and wouldn’t need it, but it just goes to prove you never know. You should always listen to your mother. I’ll bet if Edna was on the train she’d have at least offered him a hankie while he was getting spritzed on during Ryder’s rants.

Ryder does most of his ranting to mild-mannered Walter Garber (Denzel Washington; American Gangster), a beaten-down Manhattan Transit Authority employee whose career in management seems to be slipping away from him just as this hijacking occurs. Walter is currently under investigation for taking a bribe and so his boss John Johnson (Michael Rispoli; Yonkers Joe) has demoted him to working the train dispatch floor where schedulers make sure the hundreds of daily trains keep moving and yet do not end up clogging the same tunnels. Unfortunately for Walter, he just happens to be the poor schmo to notice that Pelham 1 2 3 isn’t moving at the time Ryder and his gang take control, so when he radios the conductor he becomes Ryder’s newest BFF and eventually the bag man to deliver the terrorists’ ransom of $10 million for the release of the hostages in the car. Apparently inflation of Americans’ waistlines isn’t the only thing to have bloated over the years. In the book and the original film they asked for $1 million. In 1988, it jumped up to $5 million. I just wonder, since that movie was made in Toronto, pretending to be NYC, if the $5 million was in Canadian dollars? Kidding. But in 1988, that would have been a measly $4,420,229.24 in pretend US currency, not that I’m counting, though I may be digressing.

There are any number of flaws with
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, not the least of which is the sheer talkiness of the piece. Hostage negotiations may sound like they’d be exciting to experience, but that’s only if you like a bunch of screaming and threats, over and over again. Travolta seems to have made the acting choice that the only way his character can express himself is at the top of his voice and by punctuating every other sentence with an ‘f-bomb’ aimed at somebody’s mother, if you get my meaning. Sigh. Whatever happened to the slick, well-groomed villain with a dash of finesse? This would especially make sense here since we are eventually led to believe that Ryder is in reality a Wall Street bigwig done wrong by the city years earlier, thus prompting this revenge/heist plan in the first place. I can’t help but wonder if he had the neck tattoo when he worked the Bull Market in his Armani suits. Hmmm.

It takes a long time before Wallflower Walter is hand-picked to bring the bucks to the bad boys
below, and it is even longer before there is any action that results in the type of excitement you may have seen in the previews for this movie. All those smashing cars, flipping vehicles, explosions, yadda, yadda occur in less than one minute of the movie all squeezed together as a convenience to slow down the delivery of the ransom and to set up the “necessary” execution of a hostage so that the MTA and the mayor (James Gandolfini; “The Sopranos”) will get the idea that these nutjobs mean serious business. Why James Gandolfini is even in the movie seems like an unnecessary diversion. His role is superfluous other than to remind viewers of politicians with loose zippers (like Eliot Spitzer) as he whines about his public image after “the incident.” Who cares? Is it remotely relevant to the story here? Perhaps it could have been if director Tony Scott (Déjà Vu) and scriptwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire) had done any “heavy lifting” and tried to tie in the mayor’s woes to Garber’s disgrace, but they don’t bother. Neither do they make the effort to imbue the script with any references, either overt or otherwise, that might remind the audience that New Yorkers have collectively changed since 9/11. While there may be an expectation (or at least the hope) from viewers to see a band of hostages rise up against the terrorists à la the passengers of Boston’s Flight 11 on that fateful day in 2001, there is only a single act of heroism from any of the passengers on this train. Another real letdown in the script comes with the whole introduction of a sub-plot about a young man (Alex Kaluzhsky; You and I) onboard having a wi-fi connection to his girlfriend (Alice Kremelberg; Baby Mama) going when the seizure of the train is taking place. You’d think this could lead to a tense “Will his computer connection be discovered?” or “Will the police be able to use this link to guide them to rescue the hostages before Ryder realizes he is being watched?” storyline, but, no, instead the most Helgeland does with it is have the guy’s dumb-as-a-stump girlfriend whine away at him throughout the ordeal from the safety of her (tackily decorated) bedroom, wanting him to tell her that he looooves her. Dumb, and a waste of celluloid.

Pretty much
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a double-edged sword: it’s Washington’s movie if you want to call it a winner and Travolta’s if you want to call it a flop. Washington, as usual, gives a measured performance and manages to convey a dozen layers of a life while he does little but sit at a desk for most of the film and talk into a microphone. It shows why he’s got two Oscars on his bookshelf at home and another three nominations in his back pocket. Meanwhile, there’s Travolta’s “South Park”-ready cartoonish performance that, while entertaining, is so far out of Denzel’s league that you’ll swear you could be watching two different movies patched together ~ the dramatic version and the parody of the same script. Travolta’s waving a gun around is ridiculously less threatening than memories of the real-life Bernie Goetz (everyone under 40 is now scratching their head going who?). Travolta makes killing hostages look like he’s thinning the herd, and in a crowded, dirty, loud place like Tony Scott portrays New York City it hardly seems like such a bad idea when you get right down to it. He’s not exactly the best endorsement the Chamber of Commerce could hope to find.

What would Edna Turnblad do? She’d probably sit on Scott ‘til he promised never to make anything quite so “mean” ever again (unless it’s the newly announced
Alien prequel he’s producing for Fox’s 2011 slate of releases). As for Ryder, she might just give him a good paddling, but he seems like the type to like that sort of thing.

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