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Reviews: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Man on Fire (2004)

January 4th, 2010

The real question is if The Taking of Pelham 123 can top scoring a 1, 2 or 3 in my 1 to 10 rating scale.

The Aughts will be remembered as a decade of many things.  There were tremendous periods of unrest in the political and economic spheres.  There were wars in the geopolitical realm.  There was the promotion of tabloid culture and reality TV.  In cinemaplexes across the nation, it was the decade of the remake.  This post is going to take a look back at two remakes teaming up a director and his odeon hero, both based derivatively on novels.

The first of the two remakes, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is one I’m not terribly upbeat on.  Usually I’m able to find at least a few redeeming characteristics in just about every movie.  You expect that finding bright spots wouldn’t be difficult in a flick with a standout cast featuring star power like big screen superstar Denzel Washington, TV heavyweight James Gandolfini, awkward-king John Tuturro and Scientology Xenu John Travolta.  Well, it was darn hard to find any good in there.

The only thing that really got me up for this movie is that it reunited director Tony Scott with Denzel Washington, who he cast in the eminently awesome 2004 film Man on Fire, our second review here.

Let’s start with the bad.  Pelham 123 is a remake of a 1974 heist movie starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw as two of four hijackers taking a green line local subway.  Jerry Stiller and Hector Elizondo also starred in the original, which was pretty well replicated by the remake as far as plot goes.  The one notable aspect of the original is that it introduced the concept of the color coded villain: the four hijackers are Messrs. Blue, Green, Brown and Gray… the colors that later inspired the criminals in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

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As with the original, the criminals in the remake (led by Travolta as “Ryder”) jack the South-bound, midday 6 train.  It becomes apparent from an early stage that there’s something a bit off about the hijackers – in a world of movie viewers attuned to the Die Hard style of heist headfakes, you kind of get a clue this isn’t a standard stick up.  I’m not going to play spoiler (even though I recommend passing on this film), so I won’t say what the twist is, but it should be obvious to you about 45 minutes before it’s revealed.

The cast is incredibly underutilized.  Washington plays an MTA official who’s been busted down to dispatcher after being charged with accepting bribes.  He catches the call with Pelham 123 on his line when the train is taken.  His character is never really developed, in that we learn factoids about him without those facts or characteristics advancing him as a character or the story in general.

In Pelham 123, Scott fails to play off any two characters so as to make them greater than the sum of their parts. Washington and Fanning achieve that in Man on Fire.

Also formulaic and failing in development is Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York.  He plays a far less bumbling mix of the Abe Beame-based mayor of the original and the Bloomberg style mayor who tries desperately to seem in touch with the average man (how any casting director thought Tony Soprano could play a mayor who comes from too lily a background to connect with the average New Yorker is beyond me).  Again, we learn little tidbits about the Mayor, but they are all inconsequential and don’t make the mayor any less of a generic and lifeless character.

Travolta’s Ryder is no better.  The storyline lacks logic and yet is somehow eerily telegraphed… probably by the poorly crafted script which does not give the viewing audience enough credit in by even remedially masking the twists and turns.  Yes, every moviegoer wants the chance to figure out what’s going on… but part of the allure is that it has to be hard to do so… not everyone gets to figure it out.

Scott truly failed in a) taking on a completely unoriginal adaptation of the heist, b) not waiting for its script to be perfected and c) not getting much of anything out of his cast.  All in all, it looks like a film that was shot on the fly, Ed Wood style.

Contrasted with Pelham 123 is the riveting and thrilling Man on Fire.  Unlike the original Pelham 123, I did make a good faith effort to watch the initial Man on Fire.  I struggled with it, I admit.  Scott Glenn played the lead role of bodyguard Creasy, while the only other familiar names on the cast (Joe Pesci and Danny Aiello) played minor roles in the buildup.  The basic story is the same in the original and the remake, a broken down American veteran travels to a foreign land to protect a young girl in an era of persistent kidnapping.

In the original, Creasy traveled to mob-dominated Italy after serving in Vietnam, tortured by the violence he had witnessed.  In the remake, Washington again suits up for director Tony Scott, this time traveling to bodyguard Dakota Fanning as a young Lupita Ramos in Mexico City.  Washington’s Creasy is a drunk, traumatized by the horrors he has witnessed upon others as a Special Forces operative for the US.

For as much as I disliked Pelham 123, Man on Fire is in my collection and is an underrated favorite.

Both the original and the remake start quite slowly, building up Creasy’s callous detachment from society and other people.  Admittedly, I didn’t last too long in watching the original, and I didn’t appreciate fully the length to which Tony Scott developed the characters in the remake until the plot turned.  Up until the turn, which it hardly is a spoiler to say is a kidnapping, you see young Lupita (and in the original, Sam) slowly chip away at the coarse exterior of Creasy to develop a bond and re-humanize the man.

That development not only serves to breath life into the characters, but it also advances the plot, laying the groundwork for the audiences comprehension of the heinous crime and the passion with which Creasy becomes a man on fire.  This is the primary difference between the two Scott-Washington movies.  One features a script with tidbits that are thrown in, seemingly at random and without any real effort or impact in advancing character development or the plot.  In Man on Fire, Scott melds the script, his actors and the plot direction into a cacophony of emotion, action, drama and truly surprising twists.

Scott also draws much greater performances from his secondary cast in Man on Fire, with Christopher Walken perfectly cast and with outstanding performances from Rachel Ticotin and Radha Mitchell.  Also surprisingly good is Marc Anthony, in what I believe was his film debut.  There were no strong supporting performances in Pelham 123.  Tuturro was as annoying as his Transformers agent, while Michael Rispoli and Luis Guzmán were just wasted.

The contrasts between the two works are equally stark in my assessment thereof.  While I could not have been more disappointed by a film like The Taking of Pelham 123, I was genuinely and honestly surprised and impressed with Man on Fire.  While neither original had much resonance with me (I finished neither off my DVR – though I’d already seen Scott’s Man on Fire and intentionally cut Pelham 123 short to preserve the remake), the degree to which I was disgusted with the dullness of the heist movie was matched with the rushing brilliance of Man on Fire.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I give The Taking of Pelham 123 a 5, with no redeeming qualities.  Conversely, I give Man on Fire a 9 and the honor (along with In the Bedroom) of being co-awarded the status of my most underappreciated major theatrical release.

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