Bright Lights Film Journal

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009): Inflating Pelham

“To be a star, or thought of as a star, was not enough.”

Inflation becomes a central motif of the new The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009). Very consciously, Mr. Blue/Ryder (John Travolta) places a price on the individual hostages that Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) calculates to a few pennies over $10 million. The city can keep the change! Hostages in the original Pelham One Two Three (1974) were worth only $1 million. Not quite two hostages in the remake equal all the hostages in the original. That’s inflation! However, the new Pelham inflates its stakes even more by having Ryder utilize the Wall Street panic over the subway hostage situation to capitalize on the ascending price of gold that may give him more than $100 million.

This latter plot element rests on the inflated fears from terrorism, especially NYC’s, as the recent U.S. Air jet flopping in the Hudson and the indiscreet use of Air Force One over the city reminded us. Yet the only entity reacting to the Pelham123 hijacking as a terrorist episode in the film is Wall Street, suggesting a disjointed plot device and the general feeling that Wall Street monetary fantasies (quickly becoming a trite theme) are alive and well. It’s as if Wall Street reacts to the subway car hijacking as TMZ reacts to celebrity disasters — it takes very little to excite them into a hard-on.

Another form of inflation applies to the stars of the respective Pelhams. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw starred in the original, as Garber and Mr. Blue respectively. In 1974, they were stars when being a star was enough. The term “superstar” was just appearing from two very different directions in the 1970s. First was the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1969)1; then in the mid-seventies Andy Warhol claimed a friend of his called herself Ingrid Superstar.2 Given the subjective nature of the label, “superstar” became a way to distinguish the biggest stars from the run-of-the-mill batch. Today, we have the A-list. Matthau and Shaw were stars, proven performers who helped shaped iconic films and characters: Matthau in The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Odd Couple (1968), Charley Varrick (1973), and The Bad News Bears (1978); Shaw in From Russia with Love (1963), The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975), and Black Sunday (1977). Stardom was enough. Superstars are inflated stars. Like the inflated economy of the 1970s, they took on a reality of their own. There were as many superstars in the following decade as there were billionaires. To be a star, or thought of as a star, was not enough, barely worth a media-related thought.

Washington (right) and Travolta have had greater career staying power and successes than Matthau and Shaw, even allowing for inflated box office dollars. The paradox is that a movie like Pelham functions better with low to moderate star power. The new Pelham committed itself to two great stars to carry the film both dramatically and financially. Washington has recorded solid results from fair to middling films, whereas Travolta is hit or miss. Putting them together and committing the script to being a contest between the high-powered stars, the new Pelham’s makers sacrificed all the virtues in the original Pelham (see my other article). All you get are strong stars with inflated characters facing off.3

Besides sacrificing any feeling for New York City, the new Pelham diminishes nearly all of its characters. The original Pelham created its strong characterizations through the use of caricature and stereotyping with some deft casting. The other criminals besides Robert Shaw were played by Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Earl Hindman. Only Luis Guzman matches his earlier counterpart in the new film — and then he’s shot by a sniper halfway through! Colors are used for names — Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, etc. — but never seem to come to life within the story’s fabric. The subway workers other than Matthau were played by Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller, Tom Pedi, and James Broderick. Standing out is Tom Pedi, whose Caz Dolowicz dominates with his NYC chutzpah that ends up making him the second victim of the hijackers.

The best example of actor/character inflation in the new Pelham is the use of James Gandolfini as the mayor. He is a strange case as a movie star. His career is packed with strong character actor roles: Money for Nothing (1992), True Romance (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), 8 MM (1999). Because The Sopranos has given him star power, he fits less comfortably in the same type of roles in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and The Mexican (2002). The type of actor needed for the mayor in this story should have little or no star power, another miscalculation in the new Pelham of which the biggest was remaking the film. The mayor in the original, Lee Wallace, was a parody of a weak politician with low popularity ratings and an overbearing aide (Tony Roberts). Gandolfini’s mayor is depicted as weak and undecided, but the actor projects too much merely from his size and frame, as well as his past baggage as an actor. Inflating the mayor’s role with a star ruins the concept of the character.4

The Gandolfini example shows that the problem with the new Pelham is ultimately not with the performances or the plot alterations. It’s our world of cinema — its makers and audiences — that bears the greatest responsibility. We are getting the movies we are most like. Generic action thrillers. No style. Forced wit. Take a look at Pelham director Tony Scott’s resume. Top Gun (1985), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990), True Romance (1993),5The Fan (1996), Man on Fire (2004), Deja Vu (2006). He may have been born to bring film to this point.

  1. The last line of the “Superstar” song is prophetic: “Do you think you’re what they say you are?” To be labeled a superstar, in any venue, could spell the beginning of the end of not only your superstar status. []
  2. Strangely, Warhol’s stars were the shells of real cinematic stars and remained relatively unknown. Superstars or A-listers are so well known that many people get sick of them: Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Brad and Angelina. []
  3. Travolta’movie Face/Off (1997), with Nicolas Cage, represents the quintessence of this movie phase. In John Woo’s movie, the premise is inflated. []
  4. The movie begged for a Rudy Giuliani or Bloomberg parody. It comes close, probably accidentally, in the case of Bloomberg when Gandolfini becomes the first to recognize Ryder’s attempt to profit from a Wall Street crash in stock prices. John Turturro’s presence in the film, outside his New Yorkness, inflates a role — hostage negotiator — not found in the original film. []
  5. An exception to the rule? Or did he screw up a great script? What was good in this film comes from the quirky characterizations, something absent in nearly all of Tony Scott’s films, culminating with Pelham. []