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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, originating in a novel by John Godey, is one of the great New York stories. Hijacking a subway sounds really dumb to most New Yorkers "Where are they gonna go, Canarsie?" and that's what makes it such a mouthwatering challenge for very clever criminals. Then there's the good guys' point of view. The frustrations of operating an ancient transportation system harmonize beautifully with the fatalism of the Outer Borough types who run the transit system. There's even a nice role for the mayor, played in Tony Scott's remake of the 1974 classic by James Gandolfini. In the new version, the mayor gets to dismiss an aide's comment with the line, "I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home." (The scariest thing about Joseph Sargent's original, now, is its strange prescience, casting someone who could have passed for the wimpy, overtly neurotic brother of Ed Koch, whose first term began only in 1977.)  

Both films are better when the setting is underground, or at least indoors. Surface action is more or less condemned to consist of car chases, as pots of cash have to be speedily conveyed to Midtown from distant vaults. Mr Scott's automotive collisions are commendably deadly-looking; they don't have the jokey stock-car inconsequence that gladdens the teenaged heart. Someday, when all cars are outfitted with transponders that warn drivers without bothering pedestrians (or light sleepers), this sort of scene will have a different look and feel. Right now, what gives the remake a different look and feel is the communications upgrade. Not just cell phones, of course, but computers outfitted with WiFi and webcams not to mention Google. In one hilarious moment that somewhat misogynistically immortalizes the black-hole solipsism of the female adolescent, a young hostage is asked if he loves his girlfriend. He says that he can't talk right now. Her pouty retort: "Why can't you just say 'yes'? 'Yes' is easier than 'I can't talk right now'." Life is indeed a divine comedy here in New York City, at least.

New York City looks a lot better now than it did in 1974, and Mr Scott shows it off to us from a helicopter. The city's chief hostage negotiator (John Tuturro) murmurs manfully to the hero of the piece (Denzel Washington) that he likes the airborne perspective, because "you get to see what you're fighting for." It's a crazy thing to say, really, because "what you're fighting for" the managed chaos of millions of human beings negotiating city life is the one thing that can't be seen from a flight path over the East River. I suspect what the hostage negotiator really likes about the airborne perspective is the illusion that the populace has gone away and taken the chaos with it, leaving the triumph of the city's skyline bathed in peace and quiet.

Down in the subway tunnels, of course, there is hardly any perspective to be had. Instead of length and breadth, there is dark and dirt. It is the same dark and dirt that every MTA rider will recognize, and this familiarity may make the movie less frightening for New Yorkers than for folks from cleaner, newer parts of the country. The tunnels don't look medieval, but aboriginal: is New York conceivable without them? Whether intentionally or not, Mr Scott has failed to make the tunnels seem scary. For the matter of that, New York is inconceivable without characters like Ryder (John Travolta), a brilliant fraudster who, one increasingly suspects, is less interested in the hostage ransom than he ought to be. Even more familiar is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), the mid-level manager on probation duty as a dispatcher, pending the investigation of a bribe that he may have taken from a subway car manufacturer.

(The bribe is an interesting tangent. When Garber confesses to it, under duress from Ryder, he insists that he was going to choose the briber's product anyway. On his own conscience, he is comfortable that his decision was not corrupt. Why, then, should he not accept a little boost to help out with his children's tuition? Why, exactly, is it wrong to do so? The City ought to be grateful, not prosecutorial. Any fear that the prospect of bribes would increase the number of corrupt decisions strikes me as quite naive. Ties of family and friendship are far more corrupting than money bribes, and far more difficult to stamp out. Sometimes I think that we go after cash prizes because they're simply easier to detect and punish.)

The actors (even Mr Travolta) are all masters of the subtle enrichments that carry highly individuated characterizations over the uncanny valley and right to our welcoming credulity, but the structure of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is inescapably that of a game. In no other way could such the gambit be presented as entertainment without being either intolerably dull or just intolerable. The game is complicated: the mastermind wants money that doesn't belong to him, but the forces ranged against him are more interested in keeping his hostages alive than in squelching his greed. The backlighting of millions of dollars gives the casualties (although there aren't many) a grievous weight that engages us in the game as deeply as it does Garber and his colleagues. We care quite as much as if we were really playing alongside the dispatcher, the hostage negotiator, and the mayor even as we're glad that we're not being held accountable for the outcome. The glitzier parts of the game the occasional freeze-frames in which the remaining time is announced; the arrow-laden screens on which Ryder tracks the impact of his gamble on the financial markets are gifts to our nerves, little breaks from direness, even though an obtuse critic might take them for just the opposite.

The game is complicated also by the sense that not everybody knows what would constitute a win. The mayor, as a former high-flying prosecutor, figures it out first or second, rather, after the criminal who has created the game in the first place, but comprehension comes slowly. Meanwhile, we are kept in suspense about just what is in play. The only thing that we can be sure of that we want the hostages to live makes us all the more anxious, because we know that we don't know the odds against their survival. The nature of the game, in short, dents the predictability that always accompanies movies of this kind, where it is obvious to anyone over the age of eight that most of the hostages will come out alive. It is not the rules of the game that are withheld from us but the arsenals of the players their strengths, their grievances, their handicaps, all of which are as finely conceived as those of chess figures. Consider the hostage negotiator, Camonetti. He's great at what he does, but, this time it seems, he's not going to be allowed to do it. He could be a blowhard and have a fit we've all sat through dozens of movies in which responsible professionals revert to childishness when the prerogatives of their professional expertise are not recognized, but the negotiator gets with the game and helps out. He's not part of the problem, so we pay attention to the things that he brings to the solution. Nothing fantastic or incredible, but some good advice for Garber.

If Ryder is one of John Travolta's more unhinged characters (a genuine loose cannon we don't doubt it for a moment), Garber is among Denzel Washington's most centered. The actor appears to have spent a semester in schlub school; only his fantastic smile (rarely deployed) reminds us of his great good looks. And for the first time I felt that I was watching Mr Washington play a black man; he's made a career of playing men who happen to be black, and it is almost jarring to see, for example, Garber's faintly barbed obeisance to the mayor at the end. Among the supporting roles, John Tuturro surprises with a characterization of complete calm and self-control (he is also very thin and erect). Michael Rispoli is especially good as Garber's current boss: at first, you think that he's just another pain in the ass, but as you learn the facts you see that he is genuinely disgusted to have a bribe-taker in his shop.

James Gandolfini, as an expansive politician who doesn't lose sleep over the consequences of his actions, and John Benjamin Hickey, as his deputy, a career civil servant whose stock in trade is resourceful dependability, fit together as well as Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter.

When I say that Scott has made a game of what would in real life be a ghastly combination of terror and tedium, you may ask what the point of his utterly fictional exercise might be. My answer is that The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a summer movie, and a very good one. It is better at being a summer movie than two recent entries in the field, 16 Blocks and Inside Man. It's better than 16 Blocks because its two principals, flawed certainly, and maybe, in the case of Ryder, even a little crazy, are not wrecks like Bruce Willis's Jack Mosley. (Wrecks are depressing!) Inside Man is also a game film, but its objective shifts too soon from those hostages, ultimately the lodestone of audience engagement; moreover, it drifts perilously close to Holocaust exploitation. For all of its dirt and suspense, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a light-hearted film. Again, some critics may object to this per se. For them, I prescribe summerschool. (June 2009)

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