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.
This 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, 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.
1. 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.