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Attack of the Girlymen

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Dir. Tony Scott, Now Playing

John Travolta as Ryder. © Columbia Pictures.
John Travolta as Ryder. © Columbia Pictures.

Back when women’s liberation was really starting to flex its muscles in the early 1970s, anxious conservatives warned that letting women into men’s-only bars and high-paying jobs could only result in the feminization of America. The spectacle of males in beads, long hair, and patchouli was just the beginning; soon, men would be whining about their feelings and doing all the child care, and civilization as we know it would collapse into rubble.

A quarter-century later, the wage differential still stands and civilization keeps tottering along, but disturbing evidence that those pundits may have had a point is all over Tony Scott’s remake of the 1974 thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

The original film, directed by Joseph Sargent (whose credits were mainly in television), tells a straightforward, suspenseful tale about the hijacking of a New York City subway train. It was made at a time when the city was sliding into insolvency and the nation into chaos, the era of Watergate, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Billie Jean King trouncing Bobby Riggs. And its portrayal of New York as a world coming undone is what makes the ‘74 film sing. In the first Pelham One Two Three, the Big Apple is a grimy, dysfunctional, foul-mouthed place where men rage against the women infiltrating police and the transit workforce, race tensions bubble just below the surface, and everyone’s emotional temperature ranges from dyspeptic to apoplectic. 

The good guy was the endearingly rumpled Walter Matthau as Zach Garber, a transit cop who gets embroiled in the hijack drama. Garber shares his colleagues’ mistrust of change; he derides some visiting Japanese colleagues as “monkeys,” and is shocked when the police lieutenant he’s been talking to over the radio turns out to be black. But Garber’s also committed to doing his job without heroics, and therein lies his heroism. The leader of the hijackers, played by an icy Robert Shaw, stays focused on getting the job done, too. One may be a bit of a Neanderthal, the other a sociopath, but the two leads function like grown-ups.

Denzel Washington as Garber. © Columbia Pictures.
Denzel Washington as Garber. © Columbia Pictures.

But there’s no place for men of the old school in Tony Scott’s empty-calorie, feel-good, modern Hollywood remake of this classic. Instead, hero and villain are two bruised psyches turning to each other for healing, as one more action picture adopts focus-group formulas that dictate a Frankenstein stitching-together of car chases, gunfire, and women’s-weeper bathos.

The setup for the hijacking, which in the 1974 edition was a slow build filling the first quarter of the movie, gets rushed through in the credits, like the opening teaser in a weekly TV drama. That leaves plenty of time for fancy-pants camera work, roaring motorcycles, and spattering blood. Additional screen minutes are devoted to building up back stories for the film’s primary antagonists, the better to embroil them in a love-hate pas de deux.

John Travolta plays Ryder, the hijacking ringleader, as a sadistic chatterbox for whom the subway caper seems mainly a pretext for showing off and messing with other people’s heads. His foil, Garber, is a disgraced and demoted subway executive, portrayed by a chubbed-up Denzel Washington with actorly modesty as ostentatious as Travolta’s flamboyance.

In 2009, it’s not enough for Garber to save the city. He also has to suffer and be redeemed, a blockbuster cliché that by now is so tired not even Washington can make it fresh. The new Garber is less a functioning adult than a guilt-wracked zhlub who stands around yammering on his cell to his wife about their kid’s soccer game while precious minutes tick down to the hijackers’ literal deadline. He’s like some Rush Limbaugh parody of a feminazi’s pussy-whipped houseboy. As he heads to the final face-off with Ryder, his wife squawks at him, “Don’t forget to pick up a gallon of milk!”

Presumably we’re supposed to feel he’s reclaimed his soul, and his balls, when he jumps around the train tracks waving a gun like a superhero. In movies like this, redemption comes cheap: you just have to kill the bad guy. In the 1974 version, Garber never fired his gun; cracking the case was all the validation he needed. If he had a wife, he kept it to himself. In 2009, our hero gets a commendation from the mayor, along with a get-out-of-jail-free card, before hurrying home to appease the little woman with that milk while sentimental strings swell in the background. It’s like watching John McCain try to win the “women’s vote” by yoking himself to Sarah Palin. Has heroism been reduced to this?

Where feminization really takes its toll, however, is on the other side of the hero/villain dance card. John Travolta, decked out in pointy sideburns and prison neck tattoo, makes Ryder a prancing leather queen who purrs to Garber, “You may be the last friend I ever make,” and rhapsodizes about his physical allure. In prison, he muses, “I’d make him my bitch.” Their cat-and-mouse courtship climaxes in a final confrontation wherein Ryder begs Garber to drill him—with a bullet, naturally, this being a family picture, but you’d have to be blind or Republican not to register the homoerotic vibe.

This creepy love story comes packaged in tens of millions of dollars’ worth of special effects—slow-motion wizardry, swirling, soaring cameras, psychedelic blurs. They’re pretty as hell but they undercut the story; flash cards have to be dropped in reminding us that the subway hostages’ time is running out. Director Scott appears to be so enchanted with his high-tech toys and pseudo-artistic vision that he has little enthusiasm left over for the narrative that’s supposed to be the real business at hand. Only the weird sexual tension between Ryder and Garber makes this bright, shiny, soulless mechanism watchable.

What’s offensive about all this is not the movie’s odd gender politics, nor Scott et al.’s backing off from a full-on Brokeback IRT (although who wouldn’t buy tickets to that?). What irks is the remake’s blatant falseness, its lazy attempts to thrum the audience’s heartstrings, and its leaden failure to make terrorist mayhem and murder anything but tedious. To see an honest, entertaining little film turned into gussied-up, soppy schlock, to see so much money, talent, and effort expended on something so meretricious, really does make you  wonder if civilization is coming off the rails after all.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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