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The Taking of Pelham 123: Next Stop, More Tony Scott Stylized Visuals

The Taking of Pelham 123 wants to be a good thriller. It got on board, it headed on the right track in the right direction, and wanted to experience a smooth ride. Unfortunately, the motorman for this thriller was Tony Scott, who continues to attempt to be as recognizable as his more famous (and more talented) brother Ridley Scott by using his trademark “visual style.” It’s not really a style at all– he uses editing so rapidfire and spins the camera around so often that he makes Michael Bay look Aleksandr Sokurov. Also, he loves blurring large portions of the screen, which is either to emphasize how we miss details in the frenetic city life, or to emphasize how distinctive Tony Scott’s visuals are. Any director with talent and a camera could’ve kept far more tension and made a memorable thriller with this script and these actors. Instead, between Travolta’s mercurial characterization of his villain and Scott’s obnoxious visual flairs, this film is about as memorable as any other subway ride.

Walter Garber is an NYC civil servant under investigation by the city, played by Denzel Washington, who finds opportunity to redeem himself when a hostage situation occurs in a subway car (Sound familiar? Replace “subway car” with “bank” and you have Spike Lee’s Inside Man). Ryder is John Travolta playing a variation on the psycho killer he’s played in a number of movies– no one cherishes the psychotic freakout on screen like Travolta. But is he a psycho killer? Certainly he shows no hesitation in killing hostages, but he shows signs of something deeper, such as a deep intelligence regarding economics and a flair for Catholic philosophizing. As you would expect in a thriller like this, there is “more than meets the eye.” Washington and Travolta form a bond, as hero and villain often do when tossed together by fate, and in the end, Garber is the only one who can save the lives of the hostages.

But you already knew that, if you’ve seen any thriller in the last twenty years– the fun in a good thriller often isn’t in the surprises, it’s in the execution. Certainly Brian Helgeland’s script is tightly formed, providing several funny lines and giving dimension to all of his characters–even to the mayor, a role normally wasted in films like this but here played with intriguing complexity by James Gandolfini. He gives many forms of pressure to Denzel: time limits on his left, bureaucrats who want him out on his right, and a car crash which delays the ransom money from being delivered. This leads to the most self-aware moment in the film, when Gandolfini looks at the cops incredulously and asks, “Why didn’t you have a helicopter fly in the money?” We laugh, because we know that would’ve taken less time and relieved some tension. We’re aware of how far the money is too, thanks to the only stylistic flair I enjoyed, a Google Earth-esque image of New York City, showing you just how far the Federal Reserve is from the hostage situation, with a subtitle showing the amount of time left. Gulp.

The problem is, the script is so tight and the actors are so game that Tony Scott doesn’t need to add in his tricks– he could have just trusted the talent and the material. Instead, he creates an opening credits sequence so frantic and annoying that I started bracing myself for looked to be a terrible movie, which isn’t ideally the way you want your audience to feel in the first three minutes of your film. There are more scenes than I could count where the camera circles around discussions between Denzel, Gandolfini, and John Turturro, as if Scott is saying, “Hey, I don’t know how to stage conversation in a film, so I’ll just constantly revolve around them!” That rarely adds pressure to a thriller– it either makes (a) your films look B-grade and dumb, like some Steven Seagal flick, (b) your audience dizzy, or (c) all of the above. Finally, the blurring of the camera: what can it mean? Is it to represent the frenetic New York City lifestyle? Is it to represent how important details blur together in a fast-moving society? Is it to represent how Tony Scott adds gratuitous effects because he thinks it looks “cool?” I can’t answer, but it’s been a decade since I’ve seen a Tony Scott film where I didn’t feel that his visual style detracted from little things like the performances and the storytelling.

Denzel Washington does fine in a role he’s played a hundred times. He plays the role of Everyman Seeking Redemption quite well. In particular, I like when he represents the New York City everyman– there’s something about the way he strolls down the sidewalks in movies set in NYC that makes him just seem to fit in. This film has multiple moments where it professes a deep love for New York City that would’ve worked if we could have seen shots of NYC not completely blurred out or pieced together in a montage where it cuts every quarter of a second. Gandolfini plays his part so admirably that I did not once think Tony Soprano while watching it– quite a feat when you’ve made a career playing one of the most iconic figures in TV history. John Travolta is really where this film soars and tumbles, and it appears as though he’s struggling in this film between two types of villain– the villain who does not really want to kill anyone but just wants what he is due, or the villain who sees himself as the Angel of Death embracing every moment of psychotic behavior because that is why he was put on this earth. Travolta’s performance suggests both at different times throughout the film. I kept seeing during Travolta’s more human moments a smart confident businessman who doesn’t want to kill anyone. The character could’ve been played like this as a whole, but Travolta prefers his villains with a side of ham, laughing maniacally at any given opportunity and spitting the word “motherf***er” gratuitously at the end of every sentence or two (not to mention, I doubt Travolta was a very successful businessman with that obviously villainous mustache and the tattoo of a giant gun on his neck– wouldn’t that scare any most investors?).

At the end of the day, I would’ve been far more likely to accept Travolta’s acting, the thriller conventions, and Tony Scott’s preferred method of ending a film (a shootout with lots of slow-motion so we can see the blood exploding from the wounds of the villains), if the rest of the film hadn’t been shot in such a damn annoying manner. Tony Scott has a terrific actor who loves working with him, he attracts for the most part top-notch scripts, and he gets the budget he wants because his films for the most part do well. Why then can he not manage to hold his camera still and trust in the talent around him? Look, I’m all for visually distinctive directors. I can always tell a Woody Allen film when I see it, or a Spike Lee film, or a Wes Anderson film, or even a Michael Bay film– I’m not above enjoying an action genre director with visual trademarks. It’s when those trademarks begin to get in the way of the storytelling that I take serious issue with why they exist. If they’re not helping the story, and they’re not helping the performance, then they’re not helping you as a director. I don’t care how distinctive the look is. I can point out a Tony Scott film, all right. But I can’t point one out within the last decade where I thought he wasn’t hurting the film.

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~ by russellhainline on June 12, 2009.

One Response to “The Taking of Pelham 123: Next Stop, More Tony Scott Stylized Visuals”

  1. This looked shocking in trailers, and it was abysmal. Why did they change the end? Nice review though.

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