Sony // 2009 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // November 23rd, 2009
"Motherf -- -- -!!!!"
What's the first thing you do when you decide to remake a highly-respected thriller? Cast John Travolta and have him pretend he's in a cartoon!
Travolta is "Ryder," a ruthless mofo with a goatee, tats, swagger, and group of murderous henchmen. Can't let all that bad-assness go to waste, so might as well hijack a subway train and demand $10 million in exchange for the hostages' lives. And that's what they do, infiltrating and isolating Pelham 123 and calling the NYC Rail Control Unit with their demands.
On the other end of the phone: Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, Training Day), a mild-mannered, mid-level supervisor currently under investigation for corruption. Ryder finds Garber interesting and soon draws him into his mind games.
Full disclosure: I've not seen the original Pelham 123, so I can't compare this edition to its predecessor. I know the first film has earned a potent following and, if you'll allow me to pretend I have seen it (and that it's as awesome as everyone says it is), then I would also imagine being hugely disappointed with this weaksauce remake.
Since Travolta is so determined to consume everything onscreen, we'll start with him. I don't mind the guy and have enjoyed his villain performances in the past (Face/Off and Broken Arrow, for example), but this time around he's just taken a flying leap off the deep end. His Ryder is a bug-eyed, hyperactive, F-bomb dropping wacko who seems to be really, really, really mad about something. Yet, when his back story is revealed, the source of his white-hot rage doesn't seem justified. The dude was a jerkoff before and now he's just a really big jerkoff. That's the summation of his backstory. From start to finish, Ryder is a joke. He's dangerous and will blow people away, sure, but name a big-screen villain who's doesn't a) have an itchy trigger-finger, or b) has the script serve him up sacrificial cannon fodder to prove his evilness. Strip the genre conventions away and this Big Bad Guy, arguably the most important element in a cat-and-mouse thriller, is a parody. Garber is a little better but that's less because he's an interesting character (he isn't) and more because he's played by Denzel Washington who gives us a Beta Male performance instead of the usual red-meat-eating, hard-ass we've come to expect from Denzel-fronted actioners.
If Travolta's facial contortions don't pull you out of this thing, the script will. Much of the film's tension is predicated on some astoundingly stupid decision-making by people who should know better (cracks about inept NYC bureaucracy aside). For example, a big action set-piece is the rush to get the bad guys their $10 million before the deadline hits and Ryder starts killing innocents. The police have the money in their car and race through the streets of New York with motorcycle cops zipping alongside them, resulting in car accidents, flipping cars, and explosions. Cut to the mayor (James Gandolfini in a pointless role) looking at his advisors and asking why they didn't use a helicopter. No one answers, though the obvious reply was "Because if we did, that would make sense and this movie wouldn't have a car chase and there wouldn't be suspense over who Ryder would kill next." Moving towards the finale for the villain's master escape plan, Ryder and company take an action that should have sent red flags up for anyone watching -- THIS IS HOW THEY INTEND ON ESCAPING. But how are you supposed to set up the face-off between Garber and Ryder that is absolutely mandated? You can't, so you turn your supporting characters into barely functioning morons.
There are a few positives. Tony Scott sets aside his typically hyper-stylized shooting method and films Pelham relatively straightforward. And seeing John Turturro not embarrassing himself in a banana hammock is appreciated.
This Blu-ray is dynamite. The 2.40:1 widescreen brings a monster visual presentation, an HD upgrade that is easily reference quality. Even though much of the film transpires in a subway tunnel, the detailing never gets lost in the murky void. Pelham boasts the high-def gloss characteristic for big-time Blu releases and, thanks to Scott's gratifying steady camera work, you'll be able to drink up each frame without barfing from motion sickness. Sound is high-end, fronted by a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, which pounds during the high-octane sequences. All in all, this is a terrific technical presentation. Extras: a decent making-of documentary; a featurette on the New York underground (in HD); a small segment on the hair stylist (?); and two commentaries from Tony Scott, writer Brian Helgeland, and producer Todd Black. BD-Live options include cinechat, movieIQ, and a Digital Copy.
I might need to track down the original film pronto, to wipe the taste of this underperformer out of my mouth.
Guilty. I'll take the bus, thanks.
Review content copyright © 2009 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R