I first saw Joseph Sargent’s original “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” at Film Forum less than a month before September 11th. The theater’s later revival of the classic 1974 heist movie unspooled two weeks after the blackout of 2003. The coincidental timing of both engagements reinforced what makes Sargent’s film (with a script by Peter Stone, based on John Godey’s 1973 novel) one of the best movies about New York City: a group of disparate Gotham cranks, weirdoes and hotheads come together in the face of disaster. The original “Pelham” may have been made during the era when President Ford told the city, reeling from crime and near-bankruptcy, to “drop dead,” but the passengers aboard that hijacked subway car and the team of negotiators led by Walter Matthau’s grumpy Transit Authority cop proved they weren’t going down without a few up-yours to the quartet of hoods who messed with them.
Tony Scott’s remake, with the slightly altered title “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” completely deracinates the city, turning it into a garishly sleek soundstage where, in typical Scott fashion, cars are chased and blown up, men are pulverized in the middle of Park Avenue in a hail of bullets and the Manhattan skyline is depicted in tedious, tricked-out edits. The moxie of the original characters, major and minor, has been replaced by the sluggish battle between “Pelham”‘s two bloated leads: Scott regular Denzel Washington in the Matthau role and John Travolta as the villain originated by Robert Shaw, whose suave Mr. Blue did crossword puzzles in between negotiating with Matthau on the squawkbox. Travolta’s psychopathic Ryder, who once managed a private-equity fund, checks the price of gold on his laptop in the motorman’s cab of the hijacked southbound 6 train. This broad, toothless vilification of Wall Streeters is scriptwriter Brian Helgeland’s wan attempt to make the “Pelham” update seem timely — a task repeatedly undone by Travolta’s inability to play a convincing bad dude, his enunciation of “motherfucker” sounding more Edna Turnblad than Vinnie Barbarino.
In an article in the New York Times last month, Scott admitted to having never ridden the subway before starting work on “Pelham.” It shows. The passengers — the hippie, the Jew, the pimp, the gay — in the original “Pelham” may occasionally tip over into stereotype, but they are true, recognizable New Yorkers: a tough, irascible, kvetchy group, unlike the cowed, nearly mute bunch in Scott’s film. The Straphangers Campaign — or anyone with a MetroCard — may want to sue for defamation of character.
At the end of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” Denzel Washington’s humble transit cop takes the 7 train home, purchasing, as his wife requested, a gallon of milk. No jacked-up-with-growth-hormones leche for Washington and his wife: Inside his shopping bag is Stonyfield organic 2% milk, a purchase that would surely delight many of the talking heads in “Food, Inc.” (especially Gary Hirshberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms). Robert Kenner’s documentary forcefully indicts big agribusiness and horrendously lax FDA standards. Our food is, quite literally, killing us, whether through E. coli-contaminated hamburger meat or the high-fructose corn syrup that’s the main ingredient in extremely cheap products stocked on grocery shelves and found in fast food restaurants, leading to sky-high rates of morbid obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Kenner believes people have the power, exhorting us to shop at farmers’ markets — certainly a wise suggestion, but one that may prove difficult for families on extremely tight budgets, like the one profiled all too fleetingly (and never named) that has difficulty affording fresh broccoli after Dad’s diabetes medicine has been paid for. And though a cheery self-sustaining farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley boasts of how well his pigs and chickens are treated before they’re slaughtered for human consumption, meat, for many, is still murder (and is killing, not so softly, Mother Earth); why Kenner didn’t talk to any advocates of vegetarianism is puzzling.