The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Five reasons why it just doesn’t work

Posted on 16 June 2009 by HansKlopek

Hey folks. Hans here. Instead of my weekly Below Radar post (there really is nothing at a theater near me right now that I feel is review worthy), I’ll be supplying you guys with some random thoughts associated with a couple of movies that are big at the box office right now. The first, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

the-taking-of-pelham-1-2-3This movie kind of looked intriguing to me back when I saw the first trailer. I had heard good things about the 1974 original and it was interesting to see Denzel taking on a regular guy role. And from what I saw in the trailer, I thought John Travolta was finally taking an interesting approach to the bad guy role. But after seeing it on Friday, I have to confess that I was sorely let down. There were just a bunch of things in it that didn’t work for me, so many that the number of positive reviews the film has gotten has been really surprising and unsettling to me.

In the interest of changing things up a bit, I’ll take a slightly different approach to the film than a straightforward review. It’s easy to find five reasons why the film doesn’t work. And when I say it doesn’t work, it isn’t the same as me saying the film was god-awful; the movie is watchable and to someone who is looking for nothing more than two silly hours of entertainment, probably pretty awesome. I had higher hopes for it though, and here are five reasons why it didn’t click with me.

5. Tony Scott’s visual style. Scott started off as the golden boy of studio actioners, with Top Gun and Days of Thunder as two jewels in the Paramount event movie crown. He also demonstrated the ability to thrill while amusing you, with Beverly Hills Cop II (is there a movie where a Roman numeral in the title seems less appropriate?) and The Last Boy Scout to his credit. There was also True Romance which, for all its flaws, is a pretty entertaining little picture, and Crimson Tide which, for me, is one of the great submarine movies. Full of male bravado, military jargon and doomsday hoosafudge, it still had at its center two great lead performances from Denzel and Gene Hackman, and the intense claustraphobia of rugged men trapped in a tin can under the sea, cut off from the chain of command with the power of God at their finger tips. It is great cinema.

What led Scott to the saturated, hyper-stylized visual approach he utilized on the films Man on Fire, Domino and Deja Vu? You got me. I haven’t seen the first or the last, so I won’t judge, but based on seeing Domino all I can say is that the style can be highly distracting. Domino does work because it story complements the use of such style, but in the case of a movie like Pelham, where the complexities of each character should often just be observed and sometimes subtly accented, it definitely takes away.

But Scott’s style doesn’t just reflect an unconventional color palette or some slightly whacky lens work: you find it in every choice that makes its way onto the screen. It sometimes seems like the whole film is jacked up on speed. This is as good a time as any to fill you in on the plot. It centers around the hijacking of a subway car in Manhattan by Ryder (John Travolta) and his band of thugs who want $10 million bucks or they start killing people. Ryder puts his demands into Garber (Denzel Washington), a regular type guy manning the dispatch desk at Transit Authority. Garber has just had his name tainted by bribery charges, which gives the film plenty of room for discourse on moral compromise between he and Ryder, who we learn is a former Wall Street player just released from a nine year sentence for embezzlement. We buckle in as the guys fence through Ryder’s hour long deadline for receiving his money.

Scott clearly wants to make the film visually interesting, but his style has a life of its own. In counting off minutes to the deadline, he doesn’t just cut to shots of a clock ticking, but freezes whole frames of the action and hovers a title card just off to the side–a little too much. There are other scenes where he seems afraid to turn down the volume. When James Gandolfini, as New York City’s mayor, has a discussion with some aids on the street about whether or not to pay the ransom, Scott chooses to swirl around the characters with broad, sweeping camera moves. It is too distracting for words.

I have no problems with flourishes of directorial style as long as it supports the story, but Pelham would have been better suited for a style like Crimson Tide, where the camera work follows the action scrupulously and never gets in the way of character interaction. All Scott’s style does, in this case, is take away from a possibly very compelling story.

4. John Travolta as the villain. I’m as big a John Travolta fan as the next guy, but anyone who has seen Broken Arrow or Battlefield Earth can tell you that the guy is clueless when it comes to playing a bad apple. Okay, I will admit, Face Off was pretty badass and he did play a villain in that, even though he was kind of only playing the villain that he originally faced off against in the opening scenes. He is also imitating Nicolas Cage, and that helps your performance in any situation.

But with Ryder, the guy can’t make a choice that hasn’t been made a hundred times before. Watching the trailer,travolta-with-gun1 itlooked like he was going to be more calculating, less noticeably threatening, more of a chessmaster villain. When I watched the film though, he came across as abrasive, inarticulate, kind of silly. The best villains are the ones you like or at least respect a little bit. I hated Ryder and wanted him to lose every step of the way. Not because of what he was doing, but because he did it with no style and intelligence. The filmmakers probably fooled themselves into thinking that Travolta’s performance would resonate as what a more realistic hostage taker would act like in this situation. Guys, there is a reason Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken find their way habitually into villain roles: because they know how to give us believability but also style and flair, of which Travolta has none.

3. The self-conscious action movie tendency to always have something actiony going on. This one goes in a bit with number one, as Scott’s visual style is often too active for its own good, but there are also tons of shots in this movie where cop cars slam into other cars and going flying thirty feet into the air off an overpass and down to the ground. The plot setup for them is that they are escorting the car with the money to Transit Authority. It feels like the screenwriter’s last ditch effort to get some action into an action movie where people talk a lot. Seriously, what felt cool about this movie, and what feels cool about all hostage movies, is that they more or less all bog down to the same set up: two guys talk either in person or across phone lines about the bad guy’s intent to kill a bunch of people. It’s the kind of set up that Hitchcock would love but a guy like Scott can’t get his brain around without throwing in some mindless action.

This finds its way into the climax too. There is always that element in a hostage or ransom movie where you gotta have the villain get his just deserts, so you have to contrive an action sequence that takes up the better part of the third act so that all the people who were bored by the talking across phone lines  will feel like they got their money’s worth. It happens in this film and it involves, rather unbelievably, a scenario in which Denzel’s character (the last guy who should have any kind of a role in this situation) winds up facing down Travolta’s character under pretty haphazard and lucky circumstances. My favorite action movies often come down to moments like this (I’m not one of those guys who thinks action movies are stupid for ending with shootouts; I like seeing the villain get it from the hero), but they are usually better played and mean more on an emotional level.

2. Logic flaws. Always the devil of any bad summer action movie, and no exception here. The largest and most bothersome in this case is the existence of a lap top used by one of the hostages pre-hijack that falls on the floor and is left going throughout the entire film with perfect access to the internet. Lots a problems here: first, there would be no wireless network in the tunnels (which the characters actually address at Transit Authority and provide no explanation for). Second, there is no way it would sit so prominently with Internet visibly going and the hostage looking at his girlfriend on her webcam without the gun men seeing it. Third, it serves no purpose in the broader story. The authorities eventually discover it and it gives them a look into the cabin, but they don’t use if for any greater strategic purpose. It just exists to give the screenwriter (who, in this case, is the often great Brian Helgeland, co-writer of L.A. Confidential and writer of Mystic River) some other silly story to cut to.

denzel-with-a-gun-on-the-street1. The rather hackneyed, overblown attempts to sell Denzel’s regular guy-ness. Let me start out by saying that if there is one redeeming quality that the film has, one thing that makes it at least watchable, it is Denzel’s performance as the beleagured civil servant Walter Garber . I speculated in my Below Radar review for Devil in a Blue Dress a few months ago whether or not Denzel’s performance would represent an actual character or just be a shrouded version of his stalwart, endlessly aggressive action man persona. He reminds us in this film that he is not only an appealing and often thoroughly believable leading man, but a character actor on par with the best.

But on the other hand, the filmmakers go out of their way to make sure we understand that the Denzel we are watching here is not the Denzel you are used to seeing. Across the board, the choice to portray Denzel in a less formidably heroic light reads like a marketing gimmick from top to bottom. You see it in the character’s appearance as much as anything. With owlish glasses, grandfatherly chin whiskers and a layer of paunch sticking out beneath a shirt most definitely not from Brooks Brothers, Walter Garber is unglamourous and unheroic. Denzel and his costumers and makeup people do their job, but it feels like that, a job, being run on the audience to remind us the Denzel is actually an actor.

There are also hammy little choices throughout the script that emphasize his ordinary nature. There is one terribly hackneyed scene just before Garber goes down to the tunnel to take Ryder the ransom cash where he calls his wife to tell her his mission. We have only seen her one other time in the movie. We have no sense for the state of their relationship. But Scott still expects us to care about a scene where Garber’s wife orders him to come home at the end of the day and don’t forget to bring some milk. This is an attempt to inject humor into an otherwise laughless film, but also a desperate attempt to remind us, one more time, that Denzel is not trying to be Denzel. While I believed the character and the performance, these attempts at humanization rang us unnecessary and inauthentic.

So that’s my two cents on Pelham. Probably more than you wanted to know, but there is nothing like running off about a movie that you kind of didn’t like.                           

7 Comments For This Post

  1. rnbguru Says:

    I think you’re being a little too critical on some points. The shot freezing with the time was a pretty cool effect to reinforce the urgency of the situation. Likewise with the Denzel Washington ordinariness sell. The scene with his wife was nice because it was her way of saying “you’re not going to die honey, don’t talk as if this is the end.” Thus, while it can sound a little silly, it still had some touching effect to it. As for the whole Internet in the subway, wasn’t that addressed by them placing the antenna by an outlet?

    However, I agree with you 100% on the needlessness of all the action scenes. I don’t even understand why they brought the money from Brooklyn Federal Reserve and not Manhattan’s Federal Reserve, or why they felt the need to drive it.

    Honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up what was most illogical to me. The money John Travolta was getting was pretty much a front to all the money he was REALLY making from his gold investments. However, his gold went up from 2 million to 300 million dollars in one day? Really? Does anyone honestly think the gold market would increase 15,000% because of one train hold up?

    I think it was a clever approach to add Travolta doing a short or something to take advantage of his position, but the way they did it was all wrong.

  2. other viewer Says:

    I was a bit let down by this movie, but have the “answer” to your wifi-laptop-dilema.

    Travolta had one of his goons move an “antenna” around to magically acquire internet access in the tunnel. I understood these magical shenanigans as a wireless router being setup in the tunnel connected to some other magical internet connection. This allowed Travolta to access his stock info and watch online news as well as the laptop with webcam to have a useless cameo as well.

    Another thing they pretended to answer but didn’t was “why they didn’t helicopter the money”. It was brought up in the movie but not properly answered. Helicopter did become available to move Denzel around when needed though.

    All in all I was disappointed.

  3. milk man Says:

    With regard to the logic flaws, I agree there were many but the network signal was accounted for.

    Why was he so insistent on bringing home only half a gallon? His wife obviously wanted a full gallon! And then at the end they don’t show her response to only half a gallon!

    All jokes aside though, it seems to me as though a computer sitting there with a girl watching everything would have been incredibly obvious to the gun men (after all, screens emit light… and they were talking to each other from across the aisle at one point). However, there was an explanation for the wireless network signal. A couple of the goons went outside the train with a little wireless access point device with which they were able to fish an antenna through a hole or vent in the subway tunnel ceiling and pick up a signal. Such a device would then extend the wireless network into the tunnel for Ryder to check news updates and such with his laptop. At that point the web chat connection was reestablished.

    One more thing, (and maybe it’s just because as a high school student I don’t fully understand the dynamics of the stock market but) even if you were able to drop the stock market by 8% in an hour, how is it that you turn $2 million into $300 million?? 150 times your money due to a 8% drop? I can’t see how they based the movie on it if it’s complete nonsense, so somebody please explain this to me, honestly.

  4. Anthony licky Says:

    The money thing regarding your stock market question is complete bs. Yes, the price of gold does go up when the market crashes because gold is a valuable commodity and is one of the only things that will be worth anything when our dollar and other currencies eventually become worthless. But when the market went down into the 7000s gold was only about 1000 per ounce. And it usually ranges from850 to 1000. A 900 point drop in the stock market ( which is very unlikely for a subway car takeover would not cause a 900 point drop after 911 the stock market dropped 1500 points that’s a little more serious than what happens in the movie and it has no national impact where someone in California would warrant a selloff). So maybe on a day that the market drops 900 point gold would go up about 10% not 1500% or I personally would go rob a subway and do the same thing grease lightning did. And one other point that annoyed me. Why if this guy just got out of jail and had 2 million bucks is he committing a crime that most likely will get him killed and not in Aruba having sex with 10 hookers at a time on a boat while drinking Dom or crystal. Is 2 mill not enough for a middle aged ex con. And if he has so much knowledge of the stock market why not just legally flip that 2 mill in 10 mill with your extensive understanding of how the stock market works. Oh yeah. Where in the F did he get 2 million bucks to start. Nevermind that he acts like he’s broke and needs to do this heist. Anyone with that kind of money would never job a crime that would end with that person most likely dying. Between the movie and this posting there’s yet another 2 hours of my life that Hollywood has taken from me and I will never get back. If anyone has a reason to go hijack something and take hostages it’s anyone who watched this junk movie and wants to teach the cast and people responsible for it’s birth on the big screen. If anyone with a brain would like to respond to this I would like to hear what u have to say. Thanks for reading hope this answered your question high School kid.

  5. Johnny Nuemonic Says:

    Thank you someone for pointing out the example of $2 million dollars turning into $300 million within a number of hours (which is actually a 15,000% increase and even more unbelievable).

    Anthony, Milkman, Guru, good points.

    I am in finance and the only thing I could think of was that he had an automatic leveraging account that he set up (somehow and assuming someone would even front him that much given he was an ex con and apparently had no assets to back it up) at 5X the amount put in, which is already generous, would allow him to borrow $10 million. If he invested that all that money and invested in gold and the price of gold generously doubled he would have had $20 million, $8 (+interest) of which he would have to pay back, leaving him with $12. Point is, although he sixtupled is money, the total was nowhere near $300 million.

    I think it was suggested that he short sold the market (which actually could have made sense) if he bought a lot of shares of a stock in a company that were at $10 and it went down to $.15, but that would have to have been done by doing something like blowing up the company headquarters, not a hijacking. Moreover, from what I recall, I believe the amount going up on the screen was labeled as gold.

    I feel millions go into movies and one of the financiers of the company must have brought up the question about “how John Travolta Ryder made his money in Pelham 123″ finance, gold, short, short selling, futures, okay now I’m just adding tag words so someone might stumble across this, but if you have any ideas I would be really interested to know.

  6. Jason Says:

    Regarding the logic in the movie, John Travolta but Gold “call options” because he believed the price on stock would increase above the strike price. So the only reason that Ryder wanted the 10 million was to allow the dollar to decline(liquidity) against Gold. So once the 10 million was removed from the federal reserve and the dollar depreciated and gold appreciated. That is how Ryder made the 300 million, he didnt even care about the 10 million in cash.

  7. Adrian Says:

    Man, emphasize your numbers with bold/font-size. Really difficult looking for the “5 reasons” mixed up in a one-style blocks of text.

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