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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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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

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