I saw The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 on Sunday. This is the third film to come out of John Godey’s excellent novel. I’m a big fan of the 1974 film starring Walter Matthau, but did not see the TV movie made in 1998 which is generally considered a disaster. I also love actors Denzel Washington and John Travolta, not to mention the writing of Brian Helgeland. When I first heard they were remaking this, with Denzel in Matthau role, I was excited about the prospect. All that said, this third try at this was a disappointment.
I should amend that a bit. For about three quarters of the film, it was actually quite involving, and Helgeland did a great job updating the story without following the earlier film beat by beat. Washington’s character had a compelling (though not novel) back story. Travolta played an interesting villain with a good deal of anger and well-chosen and colorful language. Gandolfini’s New York mayor was superior to the one in the earlier film, and Helgeland added a nice homage to that character by having Gandolfini’s mayor fearing catching a cold while visiting an elementary school. (Go back and watch the original.) But despite all that, it fell apart in the end.
Spoiler alert: The movie moves into the third act when Washington’s character is asked by Travolta’s character to personally deliver the ransom money to him in the subway tunnel. Washington does so, and they all travel on foot through the subway tunnels, presumably to make their planned escape. It is unclear what they have in mind for Washington’s character. At one point, Washington sees an opportunity to get away from the bad guys and does so by staying on the other side of a speeding subway train. And there’s where the film goes off the tracks - to keep the train metaphor going.
Washington up to this point has been portrayed as a subway supervisor who has been demoted for suspicion of taking a bribe. He is not a cop. When a gun is planted in one of the bags containing the ransom money, a cop asks Washington if he knows how to use it. Washington tells him he does not, and the cop has to proceed to show him how the safety works and to basically instruct him to shoot the nearest bad guy. So you would imagine that when Washington’s character manages to escape Travolta and his henchman, he would make for the nearest safe port. Instead, Washington chooses to go after Travolta. Why? Excellent question. There is no personal issue between the two of them. Travolta hasn’t killed Washington’s dog or raided his IRA. He’s bad, but he’s done nothing to Washington personally. One could argue that Travolta forcing Washington’s character to admit to taking the bribe is personal. Perhaps. Except we’re not even sure Washington did take the bribe (though it appears he did). But if he did, will capturing or killing Travolta change that? Will his actions be excused? If so, no one has told Washington this ahead of time or at least no promise has been, particularly since no one has any idea that Washington will ever be in a position to capture or kill Travolta. And, oh yeah, he will certainly be putting his life at risk going after Travolta by himself as a novice gun-user.
It doesn’t end with that. Washington eventually runs down Travolta on a bridge and holds the gun on him until the cops can arrive. Yet despite having no way to threaten Washington, Travolta manages to convince Washington to shoot him, in a sort of suicide-by-cop. Ugh.
If you recall the original film, one of the bad guys gets away and, in the process of running down leads on all former subway drivers, Matthau visits him at his apartment where the bad guy gives himself away by sneezing - a connection Matthau makes since he heard one of the bad guys do so several times earlier over the subway radio. Much more clever.
This is the problem with sequels. How does one make it new again and at the same time, top the earlier movie and/or book? Hollywood remakes these films because they know they are proven, audience-tested stories. They know that folks like me who have experienced the earlier material will also want to go to see how they have been reinvented. The risk? Just this. Disappointment. It’s hard to tell the same story again with changes that are superior to that proven winner.
Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Hollywood wants a predictably large audience before they commit to making a film with this kind of budget. Choosing proven material gets them that. But how many times can they do so before they run out of track? In the case of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, the answer is in the title.