All aboard the money train
Seen the one about the subway hijacking? Tony Scott’s exciting remake goes some way toward making you forget the enduringly popular 1970s original, writes Donald Clarke
TONY SCOTT would like it to be known that The Taking of Pelham 123 is not a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Why would you think that? Sure, they have similar titles, but the plots are completely different.
In the 1974 picture, hoodlum Robert Shaw hijacks a subway car and Walter Matthau, a harassed Transit Authority cop, has to talk him out of murdering too many commuters. In this version it’s John Travolta with the machine gun and Denzel Washington at the squawk box. Shaw looks nothing like Travolta and nobody is going to
confuse Washington for Matthau. The new film is, you see, an entirely fresh version of John Godey’s source novel.
All facetiousness aside, the background noise in Scott’s film (his best since True Romance) is somewhat different to that in Joseph Sargent’s grittier original. Made as New York City was already drifting into insolvency and social disorder, One Two Three appeared to show a city resigned to its own decline. By way of contrast, the New York of 123 seems to be fretting neurotically at the edge of the looming precipice. Buffeted by the 2001 terrorist attacks, unnerved by the prospect of financial catastrophe, the citizens all seem that bit jumpier and less fatalistic.
Indeed, Travolta’s character is counting on a degree of nervousness setting in. Having captured the subway car, decoupled it from the rest of the train and made his way to a quiet tunnel, he pulls out a laptop and squints at a financial website. He has bought large amount of gold and trusts that the stock market, freaked at the hostage crisis, will plummet as that reliable element soars in value. He also demands $10 million in cash from the city authorities, but regards that sum as little more than an expenses claim. The real killings are, these days, made in the electronic ether.
Mind you, the core appeal of One Two Three was not to do with its political or sociological nuances. The film concerned an angry hostage-taker yelling down the phone at a more phlegmatic city official and, with that dynamic intact, 123 will be reasonably viewed as a remake by most observers. It’s a pretty good one too.
You begin by wondering why Washington, who seems a little too white in the collar, is manning the microphones at the subway control centre. It transpires that he has been demoted after appearing to take a bribe and, though less bitter and more even-tempered, he, like the hijacker, feels that 21st century capitalism has given him an undue kicking.
Travolta’s performance has none of the squashed dignity of Washington’s, but his growing physical oddness – he now looks every bit as peculiar as fellow Scientologist Tom Cruise – positively adds to the character’s galloping eccentricity.
The verbal sparring between the two men grants the opening hour an impressive tenseness. Somebody should have thought of burying Tony Scott in a tunnel before. Deprived of the opportunity to blow up speedboats or crash fighter jets into skyscrapers, the director of Top Gun and Days of Thunder is forced to focus on character. Though the images remains characteristically emerald-coloured, the editing is satisfactory retrained and the relationships reasonably well drawn.
Aware that viewers expect a few bangs from his films, Scott has the cars delivering the ransom screech, honk and crash clamorously, but those sequences are brief and could be removed from the picture without damaging the story.
Unfortunately, as is often the case these days, the film doesn’t know how to end itself satisfactorily. We are, I suppose, grateful that Mr Scott has toned things down a tad, but, leaving the cinema after the low-key denouement, many fans may guiltily long for a few more exploding aircraft carriers. A decent thriller, nonetheless.
Criminal intent: John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 123