Tony Scott‘s new thrill-ride, The Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3, starts off set to the music of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” I doubt the Deja-Vu director intended the song’s key lyric, “Got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” to prove an upfront, accurate summation of the film; almost like a warning label for what unfolds over the unduly extended affair. While pitting Denzel Washington against John Travolta seems like a promising ride, Pelham‘s plot and prose derails the film long before it reaches its intended destination. One curious theory picked up along the route, however, is that perhaps Travolta’s villain was homosexual. Maybe it’s simply the byproduct of a wandering critic’s mind during eye-rolling sequences, but the idea kept my attention better than Scott’s frantic cutting and music-video aesthetics.
Scott’s Pelham is actually a remake to the 1974 original and surrounds a gang that hijacks a New York City subway car for ransom, and the tennis-like match that ensues between the lead villain and an everyday transit dispatcher, played by Travolta and Washington, respectively. How Travolta intends to pull off his $10 million heist is obviously a feat that piques your interest. And while Washington delivers a characteristically rich performance, it’s uncharacteristic with the rest of the film. Watching Travolta posture evil ring-leader through retorts like, “Lick my bunghole motherfucker,” lessens what could have been a smart battle of words considering the heavy dialogue of the film. Travolta and Washington, while suitably matched on a billboard, prove an odd couple in the film.
When you start to notice how different the two are in Pelham, you might wonder if Travolta’s villain is gay. Tabloid reports about his rumored sexual orientation aside, there does seem a fair amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the train-taking Ryder (Travolta) steps outside the traditional antagonist model. Take for example Ryder’s single earring, which is in his right ear. Of course, the whole “right ear means your gay” idea is very ‘high-school’ — it was brought up on last week’s “Weeds,” however, so apparently it’s still around — but it’s oddly apparent since Washington’s character has a single earring, as well, but in his left ear. Ryder also has deep-seeded and unexplained issues with Catholicism, enjoys the club scene, tells Garber (Washington) how handsome he is, and at one point threatens to find and fuck the male hostage negotiator (John Turturro). And with a name like Ryder, a fu manchu mustache and neck tattoo, Travolta is oddly reminiscent of rough trade you might find in the dark corner of a gay leather bar. Obviously, these are generalizations, but examining the theory is a bit more interesting than the film’s plot.
Garber and Ryder get to know each other while the city’s mayor (James Gandolfini, sans mafia accent) arranges to pay the ransom. At the same time, Scott introduces a totally unnecessary sub-plot dealing with the transportation of the $10 million. Who knew a police escort a dozen deep would experience such tribulation getting across town? If you want to know why the film feels long, look no further than these sequences.
Scott can certainly style a scene, drag shots and create a energetic atmosphere, but that sensibility seems more at home in a music video. He managed to pull it off in Man on Fire and Domino, but it simply doesn’t work in Pelham — a film that should be driven by dynamic characters instead of accident-prone cops. Scott’s treatment simply comes off as layers of gratuity attempting to hide the film’s 99 problems. But a “bitch” doesn’t appear to be one of them.
How would you rate it?