For a moment or two there, I was starting to expect great things from this one. While never leaving me totally geeked with anticipation, Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has certainly intrigued me since its first announcement last year. The 1974 original, while heavily flawed, is a rather scrappy film that’s totally of its time, full of graffiti-sprayed subways and wartorn-looking, middle-aged actors (Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam). To this update’s benefit, Scott’s overcharged action fixation felt like an interesting match with a New York City subway setting, and Denzel Washington playing the good guy for the first time in years is definitely welcome. The first red flag, however, came with the casting of John Travolta as the film’s no-bullshit villain—the guy just doesn’t intimidate at all anymore, post-Hairspray and Wild Hogs. Slapping a thin mustache and a black coat on him doesn’t mirculously transform the man into Keyser Soze.
Against my better intuition, though, I recently started to gain more and more optimism for the film. Hoped for the best, expected the middle-ground goods. If the nation’s critics are to be believed, unfortunately, my newfound faith has been a partial waste. As of now, Wednesday night, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has a 42% score on Rotten Tomatoes (8 good out of 19 total reviews). It’s still early, time is on the film’s side to bring that grade Northbound. The sad part: the majority of these first 19 reviews are from top critics, not just random film-blogger-types.
If you’re like me and truly care about a film’s critical reception (outside of horror, though—I could care less what the Roger Eberts of the world think about horror flicks), this may be a downer [a sampling of the film’s reviews after the jump]
Leading the pack is New York‘s quality writer David Edelstein, chiming in with thumbs firmly pointing to the floor:
“Director Tony Scott keeps the remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 in constant motion. True, the New York subway car being held by gunmen under the command of John Travolta is stopped dead between stations, and humble dispatcher Denzel Washington—who pleads/negotiates/debates/swaps personal stories with Travolta while everyone waits for the ransom to be paid—is largely confined to his desk. But the camera! First, it circles counterclockwise around Washington. Then it circles clockwise. Then it’s back to counterclockwise, this time jumping to close-up. Then it’s clockwise again, except with more urgency, the beads of sweat on Washington’s brow reflecting the periwinkle blue of the subway command center’s monitors, which also tie in nicely with the blue of hostage negotiator John Turturro’s shirt and the lights of the tunnel as dispersed by droplets on the train’s windows. As Scott’s camera continues to circle, hopscotch, swing on the monkey bars, and whoosh around a grid of Manhattan, Washington asks Travolta if he’s a terrorist and Travolta cackles, “Do I sound like a terrorist?” “This is just about money?” “Is there anything else?” That’s the film’s most credible exchange. Watching this Pelham—a money job from its conception—you can believe that there’s no other motivation on Earth.”
Let’s get a little harsher, with Slant‘s Nich Schager:
“Are Tony Scott’s films actually directed by Google Earth? As in virtually all his work since Enemy of the State, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 incessantly uses whipping-zooming-rotating satellite imagery for transitional effects, one of the myriad ways in which the ADD auteur spazzes up his remake of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 thriller in which Robert Shaw’s ruthless military man took hostages aboard an NYC subway car overseen by Walter Matthau’s transit cop in order to procure a million dollars from the city. In Scott’s do-over, that demand has grown to $10 million, Shaw’s calm, calculating crook has been replaced by John Travolta’s cocky, neck-tattooed villain, and Matthau’s wry hero has become Denzel Washington’s morally compromised desk jockey, a former MTA big shot recently demoted thanks to an ongoing bribery scandal. More than any narrative tweaks, however, this latest Pelham defines itself via its helmer’s trademark aesthetic gimmickry. After beginning with a measured image of the downtown Manhattan skyline encased in an expanding rectangle, the film quickly segues into Tony Scott time, with freeze frames, speed shifts, color filters, Vaseline-smeary images, and excessive cinematographic calisthenics engulfing the screen with dizzying belligerence.”
Flipping the coin, here’s a positive opinion from Variety‘s Todd Mccarthy:
“Predictably ratcheted up a few notches from the original 1974 film and cloaked in contemporary sociological relevance, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″ is an efficiently reworked version of a tense, ticking-clock suspense story. More than anything a fascinating portrait of how much New York has changed in 35 years, the film delivers the goods in excitement and big-star charisma, with the contrasting low-key and cranked-up acting styles of Denzel Washington and John Travolta playing off one another nicely.
Helgeland’s script thus pushes into directions Stone’s did not, establishing personal links between the hijacker and his opposite number. But the film also is interested in a bigger picture; a dark episode in Garber’s career is pushed front and center, forcing a facile but still provoking contrast concerning degrees, gravity and justifiability of different types of criminality, from high to low, white-collar to blue-collar, municipal to private. Pressed any further, the thematic implications would become pretentious but, as is, the elaboration grafts a little meat onto generic characters.”
Another writer that left the theater pleased, Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly:
The memory of fear wreaked by the airplanes that smashed into New York City’s iconic Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, is fresh for most New Yorkers; the memory of fear that rumbled through New York City’s iconic subway system during much of the 1970s is dim for many. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 avoids both detours — it’s neither too raw nor too nostalgic. And in the hands of director Tony Scott, it’s relevant but not too distressing, something that doesn’t shy away from jolting violence but is also, you know, fun.
It makes perfect sense that Scott would be the director who dared the remake. The Brit comes from the dart-and-weave school of music videos and made Top Gun and Crimson Tide, among many other movies. With Pelham, he has delivered a souped-up, multiculti metropolis of his own invention, a world capital that’s sort of recognizable as the home of high rollers, low crazies, and regular transit-system schmos, but also clearly a construct, a stage for his characteristic Scott stuff.”
Just because the venom dominates the goodwill overall, we’ll put this Consensus Gathering to bed with MSNBC’s Alonso Duralde:
“One could forgive Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” for its departures from the acclaimed 1974 original (both were based on the novel by John Godey) if it succeeded on its own as a taut thriller. Unfortunately, Scott seems not to trust the cat-and-mouse maneuverings of transit authority dispatcher Denzel Washington and subway hijacker John Travolta to carry the film, instead sucking away the claustrophobic intensity with car chases and other superfluous frills.
Ultimately, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” adds up to a few interesting ideas and performances that don’t really amount to a hill of tokens. Even with the flaws in Travolta’s performance, it would have been better for the film to revolve more around his battle of wits with Washington and less around the plot’s many sidetracks.”
Links to the full reviews: