Tony Scott’s films start from the premise that Americans are bored—and secretly resentful—of their lives. He specializes in violent, fragmented spectacle that feeds this boredom by drowning out subtlety and complexity. Yet, he’s the good Scott; brother Ridley is merely a pretentious window-dresser of big themes. Tony’s best movies (Spy Games, Domino) match hyperactive style to intricate storytelling, which suggests he could probably make a good film if he shook the super-cynical hucksterism out of his system.
Tony Scott’s newest, The Taking of Pelham 123, opens with the pounding, adamantine rhythms of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” to ID bad guy Ryder (John Travolta) who hijacks a New York City subway train, demanding $10 million ransom. Scott’s TV-ad background appropriates hip-hop’s deepest recent recording simply to link rap with villainy. In pop terms, this betrays the subtleties of Jay-Z’s lyrical protest (as well the profundities of Mark Romanek’s “99 Problems” music video masterpiece) for the shallowness of Hollywood excitation.
Travolta and Denzel Washington are Scott’s accomplices in this stunt. They illustrate two kinds of New York tension: the aggrieved scoundrel and the put upon workingman. Washington’s Walter Garber is a subway dispatcher who communicates with Ryder. Their exchange is not soulful like Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon’s in Dog Day Afternoon because Denzel is not a soulful actor; he’s got demagoguery in his bones. Garber captivates Ryder through their common (audience-baiting) skepticism. Pelham 123 exploits urban anxiety without relief or understanding. Using exacerbation as entertainment, it is simply an I HATE NY ad.
How did Spike Lee miss out on such a project? African-American Garber’s stressful relationship with his Italian supervisor (Michael Rispoli) condenses race/class pressures most movies usually ignore. Problem is, Scott doesn’t establish credible workplace atmosphere (just a stupidly stylized slo-mo commuter montage). Garber’s subway control center resembles the 3-D, sci-fi HQ in Déjà Vu with coworkers joshing each other like beer commercial frat house boys: Cheap shorthand for working-class tolerance.
Audiences who enjoyed the original 1974 Pelham 123 took its grungy dangerousness as a realistic confirmation of their own citizens’ distrust. But after 9/11, this worst-that-could-happen quotidian plot is borderline offensive. It also falsifies what Spike Lee recognizes as New York’s underbelly: Both Ryder and Garber (a cynical Catholic and an unreligious black) have imperfect responses to the difficulties of urban anonymity. Even the stooge-like Mayor (James Gandolfini) jabs at city lore (“I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home.”) and Ryder’s threat poses a central dilemma (“What is the going rate for a New York City hostage today?”). This doesn’t rouse passive moviegoers; in screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s adaptation, class resentment merely overrides suspense. Yet, since Tony Scott’s craft cannot create suspense, it substitutes noise, cursing and brutality.
Scott’s methods (including a piss-yellow and mold-green color scheme) don’t relieve boredom. Rather, they breed insensitivity. Romanek’s “99 Problems” video was a witty, profane jeremiad with a genuine sense of urban sorrow. Pelham 123 makes farce of modern stress. A serious filmmaker would have shown us the envious boss when John Turturro’s hostage negotiator insists on Garber’s presence, but Scott amps the uproar, going for trite heroics. It may signal Obamaism that Washington has graduated to the trustworthy Everyman role Walter Matthau personified in the original. But Garber’s family-man humility/admission is pious shite. It’s a synthetic characterization, whereas even Travolta’s flamboyant Ryder, who jokes, “Garber got a sexy voice; he could be my bitch in prison,” is more complex.
Give Scott credit for using Ryder to draw a bead on Wall Street greed better than Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, but selling chaos as entertainment hijacks all our legitimate complaints about city life. Here’s the swindle: Pelham 123’s super-cynical heroizing of average-man Garber placates his grievances. Its true message is that killing a human being is all in a New York day’s work.
The Taking of Pelham 123
Directed by Tony Scott
Runtime: 106 min.
Trackback from your site.