Planes, trains and testicles

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, from way back in 1974, when you had to spell out numbers so that people knew how to say them. Or perhaps it was so that viewers didn’t think it meant one hundred and twenty-three; this dreadful eventuality has been averted, in the remake, by putting spaces between the digits. Or maybe those spaces were inserted to make sure nobody thought this film was the 122nd sequel to the original Taking of Pelham—in which case diehard filmgoers would conscientiously avoid going to see it until they’d watched the preceding 122 movies.

As you can tell, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 does not offer much in the way of interpretive opportunities for the eagle-eyed critic.
Which is to say that it’s a “mainstream” movie that should give no problems to the “average” (male) filmgoer in search of mere butch entertainment.

It is written by Brian Helgeland, whose chef d’oeuvre so far is A Knight’s Tale, a delightful piece of fake-medieval flummery that he also directed. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is directed by Tony Scott, Ridley Scott’s brother, the peak of whose directorial career so far is The Hunger, an empty but attractive vampire yarn notable for David Bowie’s ageing several hundred years in a few minutes, and a lesbian love scene between Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and a set of lubriciously billowing translucent curtains.

Note, though, that The Hunger came out in 1983, and Scott went on to make such non-masterpieces as Top Gun, Days of Thunder and, more recently, Déjà Vu—one of the most ridiculous time-travel tales you could hope to be baffled by. He also has the honour of having directed Beverly Hills Cop II, which must have been good practice for remaking some old train thriller from 1974.

I haven’t seen the 1974 version, but The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has obviously been gussied up bigtime for a contemporary audience. There is a lot of technology around, including a subway passenger engaging in a bit of video-conferencing with his girlfriend, and there are other forms of electronic monitoring and communication while the film’s main events are afoot (plus one major lapse in the logic of all this techno-monitoring). Apparently the fact that the film proposes any access at all to the internet from a New York subway reduced audiences in that great city to tears of helpless laughter.

Denzel Washington plays an officer of the New York subway system, demoted because of a possible misdemeanour and now shunting trains around with the help of some very snazzy and visually seductive technology. This (acting) job requires Washington to wear spectacles and to show off a bit of extra weight around his middle, which indicates that he is a solid, decent family man. Hence he is the good guy, with some small moral difficulty thrown in to signal that this movie is marginally more complex than a western with black hats and white hats.

John Travolta is Ryder, the gangster who hijacks a subway train and holds the whole of New York (in the person of its mayor, played by James Gandolfini) to ransom. This role requires Travolta to display a tattoo on his neck to show that he’s a bad guy who has been to jail. He also gets to strut some funky facial fur, which for him is the actorly equivalent of Robert DeNiro’s putting on 20kg to play Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.

I suppose this is really just Hollywood stereotypes doing their jobs reproducing stereotypes, and the film as a whole represents an instance of Hollywood efficiently recycling some old material, giving it a techno-update for the 21st century, casting some alleged heavyweights, and repackaging the whole with some flashy cinematography.

Speaking of which, the cinematography is reasonably good—if somewhat hyperactive. The camera moves around a lot, like a child with attention-deficit disorder, and there’s a lot of rapid hither-and-thither cutting. Much of this visual bombardment is there just to keep reminding us that this is a tense thriller, in case we’ve forgotten; it has nothing to do with the language of film being used in a meaningful manner. It’s as though Scott and director of photography Tobias Schliessler carefully studied a few movies shot by the great Christopher Doyle, then reproduced his style at greater speed and without the oblique poetry.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is clearly expensive, or made to look so (and Travolta and Washington can’t have come cheap). Also, as hinted earlier, it’s a very male film—in the worst way. Okay, it’s not Road Hogs, a different piece of Travolta nonsense, but, despite pretending to be more serious than that male-menopausal comedy, it is just as vapid. It’s trying to look hard and tough, when in fact its relative prettiness is all it has to offer the world.

Road Hogs featured motorbikes, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is about trains, so perhaps that’s why I reach for a transport metaphor. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is like one of those great big shiny 7-series BMWs on which some men spend pots of money because it will make them feel more important and manly and so much larger — down there. Get some tattoos, I say. And take the subway.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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