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Photograph by Stephen Vaughan
LIGHT SHOW: Denzel Washington tracks a hijacked subway car with colored lights in 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.'

False Grit

Tony Scott pumps up the action and ignores the victims in 'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3'

By Richard von Busack

STOP ME if you've heard this one: "The problem with being a sled dog is that unless you're the lead dog the view never changes." The humorist Robert Benchley may have written that joke, since he tells it onscreen in the 1946 Bob Hope/Bing Crosby comedy The Road to Utopia. It turns up this week—and worse, the one-liner is explained—in the grubby and truculent The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

This Pelham is a throwback in addition to being a remake—a faux-'70s Tony Scott movie that takes place in gaudily lit Manhattan subway tunnels or else in an dim office, with zoom-addicted camera closing in on faces barking into phones. It looks like made-for-TV work, plumped up with some expensive but thoroughly uninteresting car crashes.

Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a low-key civil servant for the MTA, under shadow because of a scandal. He intercepts a phone call from a gang of criminals who have hijacked a subway car. The ringleader, John Travolta, playing a jesting maniac called Ryder, has some unintelligible tattoo on his thick neck, a Village People biker beard and a crypto-Nazi earring that looks like the Iron Cross. Ryder claims that he will kill all his hostages if $10 million doesn't arrive within the hour; the film freeze frames and shows us the countdown.

And though the police want to handle matters themselves, Ryder takes a liking to Walter and insists the civil servant will be his go-between. Swathed in polyester, Washington plays it dogged and shamed; it's his attempt to put some grit into this situation. On the sidelines are a surprisingly ineffectual (if really low-volumed) hostage negotiator, John Turturro, and a butterball New York mayor (James Gandolfini) trying to survive his own scandal.

The original Pelham One Two Three's gang of criminals with their color-coded nicknames couldn't be used here; Tarantino stole the idea for Reservoir Dogs. Increased levels of surveillance in tunnels and stations should have kept the criminals from getting away. The original had a line about the subway being "so fucked up they'll need a computer to put it together" when a computer obviously does keep this 2009 system together, with big candy-colored light boards. As the first film's heist can't stay fresh or plausible, all that's left is the depressed mood of the original—the hostility.

This Pelham has agoraphobia, taking place as it does either in the subway tunnels or the interior of an office, with brash but immaterial street scenes of the money arriving from Brooklyn. The cops slam their cars into each other in their haste to get across town. There's a joke about how a helicopter would have been faster, but no explanation why they didn't use the copters. If the filmmakers explain that they knew better, is it enough to explain why they didn't do better?

Scriptwriter Brian Helgeland retrofits clichés you never thought you'd hear again. Walter's wife (Aunjanue Ellis) gives her blessing to him delivering the money, making him promise to bring back a quart of milk at the end of the day. When Walter goes down into the subway tunnels, Ryder asks him rhetorically if the civil servant thinks he's redeeming himself by his bravery.

Lines like these are as imitation-meta as Pelham's attempts to rev up the pace by digitally shuttling through footage of a helicopter crossing Manhattan or a runaway subway speeding down the elevated tracks. Similarly, when Walter chases Ryder in a monster-size truck plastered with American flags, the anti/sorta joke about patriotic justice has as little weight as the Catholic angle. ("This reminds me of being in a confessional booth," Ryder says during the chat sessions.)

The problem with having a big-swinging-dick villain is to keep him from being a total dick. Travolta's Ryder thinks of himself as a man who has destiny by the tail, who keeps saying "We owe God a death" without crediting Shakespeare.

Pelham 1 2 3 decides that really tough men taunt each other at an anal-aggressive level. Hence Ryder's praise of Walter: "I like his voice. ... I'd make him my bitch in prison." The sled-dog joke above is mentioned as Ryder's vision of paradise. In Iceland, Ryder took a "Lithuanian ass model" on a sled ride. He tells Walter the rest of the story, about a sled dog who took a dump in front of them as he ran, multitasking, as it were. The film insists that it doesn't matter if a movie is dog crap, as long as it keeps moving.

Here are the constants in Tony Scott films: at their best, lunatic but elated; recently, just lunatic. And crass, pig-crass: here's the numbing insistence that only venal bastards have the secret to life; here are the women who are shuttled off to wait by the phone or the computer.

A director with such little feeling for collateral damage should never make a hostage-situation movie. Scott half-heartedly tries to find heroic or sensitive faces on the seized train, such as a hero soldier or teenager, but he has no serious interest in their plight. To use the ass metaphor he favors here, Scott doesn't give a rat's ass for little-guy types. The problem with watching Tony Scott films is that the view never changes. This film is as much a piece of the sinking, cynical last days of Bush as is The Girlfriend Experience. It was stale even before it arrived at the theater.

Movie Times THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 (R; 106 min.), directed by Tony Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by John Godey, photographed by Tobias Schliessler and starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, opens June 12.

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