Monday, June 22, 2009

Hijacking the Taking of Pelham 123

OK, OK...

So the new version of The Taking of Pelham 123 is not quite as bad as I had anticipated.

Granted, I was expecting something really horrific. And the result is more half-assed and silly than outright bad. But it wasn't (you'll forgive the expression) a train wreck.

Moreover, I'll give it an honest piece of praise: Denzel Washington was pretty damned good in it.

As good as Walter Matthau was in the original? No -- not by a long shot. But, then, that's a high standard. Not every Hamlet can be as good as Olivier's Hamlet -- but that doesn't mean that you can never go see Hamlet again.

(By the way: I'm fully aware that I just compared Walter Matthau to Laurence Olivier, and The Taking of Pelham 123 to Hamlet. But for a New Yorker like me, who was born in the gritty 1970s, I admit I take Pelham seriously.)

No, Denzel did a decent job. In fact, Denzel played the transit official, Walter Garber, in an almost more schlubby way than Matthau did it in the original. (Doesn't mean it was better. Just schlubbier.)

John Travolta, on the other hand, was a catastrophe. He plays the bad guy like someone who has just done one too many whippets. (It was more or less a reprise of his off-the-wall performance in Face/Off -- which was, ironically, better in that it more fully embraced its own stupidity.)

There are worse ways, I suppose, to pass a rainy Saturday afternoon than watching The Taking of Pelham 123... however, the thing that I still can't quite get over is how little love the original is getting from critics.

David Edelstein (who really should know better) called the original a "broad, artless, pushy film that seems proud of its parade of ethnic cartoon figures" -- yeah, David, you got a problem with that?

Yes, the original was a studio thriller -- that was commercial as hell, and awash in cartoonish stereotypes -- but in the best possible sense. Since when is "cartoon" bad? The movie was about a subway heist for chrissake! Nobody said anything about reaching for art.

The cartoons and cranky curmudgeons of the city were part of its charm. I loved the hooker on the train whose offended by the accusation that she's a cheap hooker. And the grumpy Jewish mayor fighting off a cold. And the ruddy faced Irish police captain. And the assorted hippies and cops and commuters who show up with something funny to say along the way.

Quentin Tarantino borrowed a lot more from Pelham than just the idea of giving his robbers the colored code names and identical costumes in Reservoir Dogs. The bite (and the humor) of those characters is there in Reservoir Dogs, too.

The four actors who really made the movie were Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Robert Shaw and, of course, Matthau.

Stiller's part was written out of the movie. Balsam's part was so pared down that they might as well have written it out. And that leaves us with Matthau and Shaw.

Shaw was truly vicious and frightening in the original. When he points his gun at the train conductor and says, "Open the door or I'll blow your head off," he's as unfazed and calm as if he were ordering a martini, and yet serious enough so that you know he'll really blow the guy's head off. He never needed to cavort around the screen like Travolta. Much more effective. Much more cool.

As for Matthau, well, just as I couldn't describe what makes Olivier's Hamlet work, I won't attempt to do so for Matthau. Rent the original. Much better use of a Saturday.