As much as I love the work of Tony Scott, I love the original Walter Matthau version of The Taking Of Pelham 123 more. (The less said about the Edward James Olmos TV movie remake the better, really).
In terms of directors becoming attached to certain cinematic properties, the unique visual style and affection for bombast of Tony Scott doesn’t necessarily immediately mesh with the notion of remaking The Taking Of Pelham 123.
The original, if you recall it correctly, is a battle of wits by way of a conversation between two great actors – the aforementioned Matthau and the late, great Robert Shaw – over radio handsets.
One holds a subway car, the infamous Pelham 123, and its inhabitants hostage with his team of colour-coded henchmen (something Tarantino would ‘homage’ many years later). The other tries to negotiate a quick and bloodless end to proceedings from the safety of the control room… And that’s it. That’s your film. Save for one quick burst of sudden, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action at the end of the third act, followed by one of the greatest freeze-frame endings in cinema history.
It hardly seemed like a remake at the hands of the guy who made flying fighter jets look more attractive then being a demi-god was the most suitable of marriages. And many critics suggest said marriage WAS far from suitable.
Scott’s Pelham redo is certainly an uneven movie: His go-to-guy, Denzel Washington, is dialling things back to try and create a character of real interest even though there’s nothing there on the page. John Travolta tips the ‘two-hander’ scales though with a thoroughly unsubtle, unnecessarily showy and pantomime-esque performance as the antagonist toWashington’s protagonist. The movie, based as it should be around two central performances, is therefore off-kilter from the outset.
Scott’s great eye for casting serves as a massive plus when he puts the likes of John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, James Gandolfini and Luis Guzman in support of Washington and Travolta. With them in place, and the viewer doing their best to turn Travolta down a bit, you can settle in for a thoroughly inoffensive, not-a-patch-on-the-original, dispensable but watchable thriller.
But then Tony Scott starts to get restless. For the first time in his career (outside of being coerced into casting Keira Knightley in Domino) it appears that he misjudges the audience’s requirements and he starts to dial things up even though the material doesn’t support it. It all starts getting flashy and unnecessarily so:
… Meetings between two or three characters are filmed as the camera spins around and in and out of them. Flash-edits hit the characters to overemphasise what they are saying. And a car chase (with almost obligatory crash, spin, flip and plummet) is added.
It’s like Scott has thought the talk between Washington and Travolta could be boring the audience so he shatters them awake with a big noisy action moment.
The final act and denouement is a big disappointment. There’s nothing here to rival the majesty of the original. That freeze-frame on Walter Matthau’s face at the end of the 1974 version is an out-and-out delight that offers the audience so much. Scott’s remake offers a silly chase sequence and a freeze-frame on Denzel Washington smiling at a dog.
It’s testament to Scott’s abilities as a director that The Taking Of Pelham 123 is not a bad film. It’s a watchable one and serves, in my opinion, as exactly what the director intended it to be: Dispensable Friday/Saturday night lazy viewing. But whilst it isn’t a bad film, it is a pointless one.
And Tony Scott was worthy of better material to work with then this.
Check out the other articles in this feature (will update this list as they are released):
3. The Fan