Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the new version of The Taking of Pelham 123, the story of a New York City subway hijacking. The original 1974 version, with Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, was one of the touchstones of my adolescence, and the first R-rated movie that my parents took me to see.
The reviews of the new version were all similar: it’s a good movie, but don’t compare it with the original. Alas, such a comparison is inevitable: the new version sucks.
When the original was made, the Transit Authority was afraid that someone might actually try to hijack a train. While much of the movie was actually filmed on the subway, a disclaimer at the end indicated that the TA did not render any technical assistance. Nevertheless, the movie presented an authentic view of the subway and its operation.
The current version was made with the full cooperation of the TA, and they seemed to go our of their way to get the details wrong. If you ride the real subway regularly, the version in the current Pelham will seem ass-backwards.
Some of the biggest howlers come from the abject rearrangement of the city to fit the script. There is no Federal Reserve Bank in Brooklyn, and the police car delivering the money appears a half-block from its destination (Grand Central Terminal) before getting wrecked on First Avenue. And a train can’t go from the Lex line to Coney Island without backtracking.
While John Travolta and Denzel Washington put in good performances, they’re done in by the script. Travolta is Ryder, a former Wall Streeter who was thrown in prison for embezzlement and now sports a tough-guy tattoo. He is violent, but strangely philosophical when he talks on the radio. The real Ryder (like the one in the 1974 movie) would have known to state his demands and shut up. (But then, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie.)
Denzel Washington is Garber, a manager demoted to the Control Center because of an alleged bribe. At least the scriptwriters tried to make him a realistic Control Center operator: he talks the talk and looks plausible through the made-up procedures. But we lose him, too, when he turns into an action hero.
In brief, the charm of the original Pelham is that it feels real. The new version does not. The original turns on crisp dialogue, much of which has been replaced with psychobabble. Perhaps if I had watched it in another frame of mind, I could have laughed at all their stupid mistakes. But as it was, I just found it annoying.
Nevertheless, I’ll probably get the DVD when it comes out, and keep it as a benchmark of how far we’ve gone down since 1974.