Reviews

The Taking of Pelham 123

Nothing if not self-aware, this update of Joseph Sargent's 1974 thriller begins by rearranging the class dynamics.


The Taking of Pelham 123

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzmán, John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, James Gandolfini
Rated: R
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-06-12 (General release)
UK date: 2009-07-24 (General release)
Website
Trailer

The opening credits of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 zip and zing and bump to the beat of Jay-Z's "99 Problems." Emulating the rhythms of the subway, shots of tracks and doors, passengers and conductors slide across the screen and slam up on one another, giving way to blurrily odious close-ups of the villains -- men with facial hair and dark glasses. Whap-smack-creak-and-squeal. It's a gloriously visceral and also heady business, enhanced by the frankly brilliant track.

And then director Tony Scott's name comes on screen, the credits end, and the movie begins. It is, to say the least, a letdown.

Nothing if not self-aware, this update of Joseph Sargent's 1974 thriller begins by rearranging the class dynamics. No longer is the primary throw-down between a transit cop (Walter Matthau) and a tweedy gentleman crook (Robert Shaw). These iconic opponents are transformed here into an MTA administrator (Denzel Washington as Garber) and John Travolta's Ryder, a heavily tattooed and pissed-off Wall Street trader-cheater (a phrase that's probably redundant in today's environment). The film reinforces Garber's working-man credentials by making him recently demoted to his former position as a trains monitor (seating him before a bank of screens that recalls Washington's position in Déjà Vu), owing to an ongoing bribery investigation (and in this, he rather resembles the cop Washington played in Inside Man). As such, he's the one who "takes the call" from the hijackers, thus initiating what will become a life-changing relationship with Ryder.

It's not a terrible thing that the traditional good-bad split is complicated in this relationship, at least from Garber's end. (Ryder is straight-up bad, and unhinged to boot.) And it's a decided plus that Washington has hold of this complication, as he makes compellingly visible Garber's thinking processes, whether seated at his desk before a humongous digital board displaying train movements, not quite explaining the situation to his earnest wife (Aunjanue Ellis) on the other end of a phone call or pushing a cart loaded with the $10 million ransom (220 pounds) down a subway tunnel. His burdened shoulders receding into the dark back of the frame say as much as his face in ponderous close-up. Garber is a harried, wily guy, and his choices, small and large, take visible tolls.

Garber's charisma and intelligence are duly appreciated by NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro), who advises from the sidelines when Ryder insists in speaking only with the trainman. Again, the film sets up a potential tension among men with differing areas of authority and expertise (cop, city worker, Wall Streeter), but doesn’t get much beyond the set-up. As much as Garber draws sympathy and interest, Ryder repels. And that makes the contest more predictable than it needs to be. Wacky, twitchy, and chatty, he gives up the usual sorts of information (he's into confessions, he spent time in a cell, he believes he's superior) and so provides the team trying to thwart him with essential ammunition.

It helps that one of the hostages is a kid with a laptop connected to his girlfriend's webcam, so when the machine is pitched to the subway car floor, it can offer an aptly tilted view of the thugs with guns and the frightened passengers: the trick of access in a train tunnel is not really explained by Ryder's ostensible technical wizardry, a fundamental component of his actual plot, which -- unlike Hans Gruber's in Die Hard -- is as mundane as his apparent plot.

Like Hans, Ryder makes use of the presumption of terrorism angle, which predictably makes the city go a little crazy. This doesn't make rational the crashing of ransom-money-transport cars that punctuates the action -- this bit is lifted from the original film, though done up here in noisy and excessive Tony-Scotty-style. As before, the crashes serve as plot-filler and distraction, a point noted by the mayor (James Gandolfini) who has authorized the payment: why, he asks out loud, didn't they move the money by helicopter? It's a cute, preemptive kind of aside, revealing that the film knows how silly all this hyper-action is but delivering it just the same.

It also speaks to the movie's strained efforts to look back and forward at once, reimagining a time when thoughtful local-color, character-driven kinds of movies had a chance in theaters and rejiggering that premise to accommodate current summertime expectations of explosions and fast cuts for their own sake. This is not to say that one moment is better than another. Still, the amalgamation here is unwieldy, partly a function of structure (half the story is above ground, half below) and partly a function of thematic shifting.

If the class differences between Ryder and Garber seem easy moral markers, they are also filtered through other kinds of identifications. When Ryder threatens he'll make the sexy-voiced Garber his "bitch" in prison, it underlines his yuckiness, but also his sense of humor (he's been incarcerated and he's seen the movie). When Garber assures his wife he'll be home after work, she takes him at his word, her determination to believe him despite and because of her knowledge of his previous deceptions (concerning the bribery charges). While she performs her part admirably, she looks caught in the movie's unresolvable middle space -- inside, above ground, immobile.

5

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Blending a dazzling array of musical influences and directions for more than two decades now, Thievery Corporation have come to represent one of the 21st century's boldest bands in both genre-blending style and lyrical impact.

The Halloween season is in full effect on this crisp Sunday evening in San Francisco that precedes All Hallows Eve by two days. With the traditional holiday falling on a Tuesday, music fans are out for as much costumed fun as they can get as evidenced by the costumed revelers here at the Masonic in the Nob Hill area. Thievery Corporation is in town, and the Bay Area "thieves" as the band's fans are known are ready to let it all hang out with one of the few bands in the music industry that isn't shy on telling listeners the truth about what's going on in the world.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite the uninspired packaging in this complete series set, Friday Night Lights remains an outstanding TV show; one of the best in the current golden age of television.

There are few series that have earned such universal acclaim as Friday Night Lights (2006-2011). This show unreservedly deserves the praise -- and the well-earned Emmy. Ostensibly about a high school football team in Dillon, Texas—headed by a brand new coach—the series is more about community than sports. Though there's certainly plenty of football-related storylines, the heart of the show is the Taylor family, their personal relationships, and the relationships of those around them.

Keep reading... Show less
10
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image