The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 – 3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

There is no definite consensus among lexicographers as to whether or not snazzily, the adverb for snazzy, belongs in our language. Pity. For it would best describe the manner in which action maven Tony Scott reprises “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” The pedigreed phrases heart thumping, character-driven and lickety-split could accompany it.

Most contemporary audiences will agree. That is, all but the loyal opposition. They are the defenders of the faith, as dedicated to the original, 1974 version, starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, as Robin Hood was to King Richard. Theirs are the nouns of disgruntlement: heresy, blasphemy and sacrilege.

“Homage, shmo-mage. What did they need to go and make that for?” bleated one strict constructionist, taking it quite personally, and then angrily answering his question with a question: “Money, right? Money?”  Indeed, Cy, probably ‘twas that dependable culprit. But lets not be so quick to exonerate good old artistic challenge.

Great films are essentially Mt. Everests. They are there. Icons of the trade. Sure, you could wander in the filmic desert for forty years wondering if you’ll ever create something as sublime as “Citizen Kane” (1941). Or, calling it a paean, you could try your own imprint, your variation on the theme. Few of the masterworks remain unscathed.

While I would certainly rail against a recreation of the above-mentioned Orson Welles classic (once I was finished cackling in disbelief), insofar as the initial “One Two Three” I have empathy for its adherents, but no fealty. Truth be told, the second talkie version of  “A Christmas Carol” (“Scrooge”-1951) is better than Hollywood’s 1938 offering.

The same goes for “His Girl Friday” (1940), the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s “The Front Page” (1931). And on and on it goes—the conspiracy between money and art upsetting the cultural landscape… essentially moving our dog dish. Admittedly, it can be painfully aging.

Like explaining to young people that “War of the Worlds” (2005) is a remake…that the 1953 original was not only a watershed in sci-fi filmmaking, but that it could kick the new one’s aspect ratio. Maybe it gets ‘em to see the real McCoy. There are worse ways to spend an evening than in a coffeehouse arguing comparative cinema with your homies.

A good place to start might be a discourse on the dispensation we give John Travolta whenever he plays a villain. As Ryder, the sinister blackmailer who hijacks the title subway in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” we forgive him his ham. It’s worth it to let the madman wax menacingly, rationalizing his fatalistic lunacy. He is nonetheless dangerous.

But in this case Mr. Travolta has his co-star to thank for the buoy. Doubtlessly pleasing all the theories of good acting as N.Y.C. rail control dispatcher Walter Garber, Denzel Washington lends creds to the crazy dance his extortionist sparring partner lavishes. They are a team—the dramatic equivalent of straight man and his over-the-top antithesis.

Only this is no laughing matter. Poor Walter. It had to happen when he was at the switch, literally. As if the temporarily demoted MTA bigwig (he’s under investigation for bribery) didn’t have enough troubles. Making it worse, in his demented way Ryder finds a comrade in the plainspoken pawn at the other end of the line and won’t relinquish him.

Meanwhile, rushing to operation central, ostensibly to take command, is NYPD hostage negotiating expert Lieutenant Camonetti, expertly etched by John Turturro. Of course Ryder will have none of it. He wants $10M in one hour or he starts killing hostages, one for every minute past deadline. He’s already shown he’s not kidding.

The tension takes hold. The mayor, portrayed with skilled acerbic note by James Gandolfini, has ordered the money from the Federal Reserve. Both he and the cash are on their way. But while Ryder won’t allow Camonetti entrance to the inner sanctum he has creepily established with Walter, it can’t deter the cop from coaching on the sidelines.

A font of experience and theory, Camonetti’s behind-the-scenes tutelage serves as stage-whispered narration on how to wrestle down such an adversary. Fortunately, he has a star pupil. But is he up to it? Speaking to his wife only twice during the crisis, Washington’s character firmly establishes his identity as a family man, middle-aged paunch and all.

While there is nail biting, surprise and excitement aplenty, it’s Mr. Washington’s Henry Fonda-like interpretation of the ordinary guy tossed into extraordinary circumstances that ultimately seals the deal. Hence, assuming it won’t make you feel like you’re cheating on an old love, be sure to number “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” among your must-sees.

“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Tony Scott and stars Denzel Washington, John Travolta and John Turturro. Running time: 106 minutes

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