Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3


Boy, did I ever nail this one. When I heard that the classic film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw was being remade by Tony Scott, script by Brian Helgeland, I just had to see the original again, which turned out to be even better than I remembered it. I also made a few predictions about this one, and I’m batting a thousand.
I said it would be more action-packed. In the original, a police car rolls onto its roof and skids a ways while hurrying to deliver some ransom money. Here, there are no less than three bad accidents doing the same thing, the last one being one of those idiotic automotive ballets where a car flies into the air and rotates at least 17 times before ever hitting the ground, where it stays only momentarily before falling off a bridge. Can you spell Overkill?
In the original, Robert Shaw was pure controlled menace, never so much as raising his voice. Psycho, sure, but smart. Here, John Travolta starts off screaming, and raises the noise level from there. His pitiful performance is all over the place.
Original: There are actual people helping Shaw in the hijacking, people with names and a wee bit of characterization. (They call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc. They have brains.) Here, one man has a name and a few lines; the others are ciphers, plug-ins, the sign of a truly lazy screenwriter.
Original: Walter Matthau was wry, funny, and dead serious, by turns. Here, Denzel Washington is simply dull.
Folks, I thought no one could out-crap the putrid remake of Sleuth, but this one manages to do that. This movie pisses all over the memory of the original. It’s a remake for the short-attention-span, shakycam, steadicam, stuttercam, and—I’m really beginning to believe this—pretty stupid new generation.
You all know of the two-frame action scene cut. You can never quite tell what’s going on, but by golly, it moves, don’t it? This is the technique favored by incompetent directors who don’t have the courage to let you actually see anything, who hope to whip you from one stupid action scene to the next without engaging your brain at all. They believe that you can’t concentrate on anything unless it goes by in a blur, that you have an attention span of about 2 frames, which is one twelfth of a second. Personally, I think it may be only one forty-eighth, which will entail, in the future, that cameras be overcranked to accommodate almost 50 separate images per second.
And you are familiar with the shakycam, which is operated by cinematographers with cerebral palsy, drawing attention to the awful camera work even in scenes where there is no intrinsic motion. Especially in those scenes; we don’t want to have these fanboy jerks think nothing’s moving do we? Motion at all costs, even when it makes no sense.
And we all know of the love affair moron directors (I mean you, Tony Scott) have with the steadicam. If the people in a scene aren’t moving, well by god we’ll move the camera, around and around and around them, pointlessly. Drawing attention to our snazzy camera work. The steadicam was invented to follow action without having to lay cumbersome dolly tracks, asshole, not to generate useless motion.
To those three execrable cinema techniques, I’m adding a new one, with a word I believe I’ve coined myself: the stuttercam. You’ll see this many times in The Pimping of Pelham 1 2 3, but it is at its most blatant near the end when the train car comes out onto elevated tracks and hurtles around a curve. It goes for two frames, and then it jumps. Two frames have been removed. Two more frames, and it jumps again. Two more frames have been removed. Continue this pathetic action until you cut to the next incompetent scene. What this is meant to do is beyond my poor powers of understanding. It must be another attention span thing: “Oh, fercrissake, is the goddam train never going to get around that curve? I’m falling asleep. Oops, it jumped! Thank you Mr. Scott, for keeping me awake!”
What else? The list of stupid techniques and even more stupid choices here is endless, there is no hope of me enumerating them all, but here’s a few more:
In addition to making the Denzel Washington part boring, a sub-plot wherein he has taken a bribe is laid on, for no reason I can see. Contrast with Walter Matthau, who we first see reluctantly escorting a visiting group of Japanese trainmen around the control room. He believes they don’t understand English, and insults them freely. They smile. And when it comes time to go, they thank him profusely, in English. This is the sort of wit we see in the original. Brian Helgeland can’t even spell wit.
Travolta is not really interested in the $10,000,000 ransom money, he has bigger fish to fry, involving the effect his hijacking will have on the stock market, which is so loony, so idiotic … what’s the synonym for brainless I’m looking for here? … aha! .. so “Brian Helgeland,” that I defy anyone to believe it for a single second.
So how do they end this piece of shit, this inflamed pimple on the ass of good cinema, this rotten, oozing pustule pretending to be a movie? I’ll bet you’re way ahead of me. The good old stand-off, Denzel holding a pistol on Travolta after one more standard final chase scene that had me snoozing until the sound woke me up and I wished for a rotten tomato to heave at the screen—or better yet, at Scott and Helgeland.
You may be wondering: Why the excess of bile toward what is, after all, only a routinely bad action movie, not really all that different in essence from a hundred, a thousand brainless action movies of the last decade? Two reasons. One: People will go see this pile of cow flop and never imagine that the original could be a trillion times better. They will not realize that Brian Helgeland is a rapist, and Tony Scott is an asswipe.
And two: It provides us a baseline, a comparison, that shows us just how far we—as a film industry and, I’m afraid, as a society—have degenerated in a mere 35 years. I know I’m going to come off as a pathetic, grumpy old man. “The world is going to hell! Why, in my day …” I realize that oldsters have been decrying the new generation ever since Alley Oop, Jr., picked up that newfangled bow and arrow and killed a mammoth with it, instead of using a good old sharp stick. “Look, dear, they’re drawing pitchers of bears and elk now, and people a-huntin’ ‘em, instead of just making handprints on the cave walls like we used to do. What are we going to do about all this violence in the media?” So you may not agree with me, if you’re less than my 60 years. But I invite you to just listen to this movie. I am a lifelong advocate of free speech, and the freedom to use dirty words. Shit, I use them in my reviews. But the excessive use of such speech has now become just a symptom of laziness. Robert Shaw never yelled, never cursed, and succeeded in being much more frightening than Travolta, whose every other word is motherfucker. Really, take a look at the old one, then the new one, and see if you don’t think we’ve gone an amazing distance downhill since 1974. The technology is better. Everything else sucks.