As Jay-Z´s cover of Ice-T´s 99 Problems blares over the opening credits of Tony Scott´s The Taking of Pelham 123, the film was already in trouble; what a departure from David Shire´s classic harsh-jazz score that defined the original film.
And though I´ve admired Scott´s recent films and felt they´ve been largely underappreciated – Man on Fire, Domino, and to a lesser extent, Deja vu – the rest of Pelham confirmed what I had feared the most: here´s another pointless remake that strips the original film down to its bare essentials for an update, removing most of the flavor in the process. Gone is Walter Matthau´s ‘gesundheit´, gone are the color-coded criminals that Tarantino borrowed for Reservoir Dogs, gone is any sense to be made of the plot.
But if you´ve never seen or don´t remember Joseph Sargent´s 1973 film, well, this one should play just fine. Here´s a mostly taut and exciting thriller with a pair of fiery performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta that only eventually loses its way as it stumbles towards a typical action movie-climax.
Washington stars as NYC subway dispatcher Walter Garber, who is in for a long day as the 1:23 train out of Pelham comes to a stop in the middle of a tunnel. He soon gets a call from Ryder (John Travolta), who, along with three other men (Luis Guzman´s Phil Ramos and two others who are barely recognized) has hijacked the Pelham train and demands 10 million dollars to be delivered in exactly one hour. For every minute past the deadline, he´ll kill a hostage – there´s eighteen or so, but only five are given much of any screentime: the conductor, a guy with a laptop and a running webcam, a woman and her young boy, and the African-American man she turns to for help.
Hostage negotiator Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro) and the mayor (James Gandolfini) eventually show up, but Ryder isn´t having any of that: he´ll only talk to Garber. On top of Walter´s bad day, he´s also being investigated for possible bribe-taking. And now he´ll have to turn into an action superhero.
For two-thirds of the movie, this Pelham remake really works on its own terms: electric and fast-paced (IMDb tells me Pelham is 2 hours long, but it flies by), it grabs you and doesn´t let go. By the third act, however, as the fake-looking CGI train plows through NYC tracks, it crashes.
What´s up with the Garber character? “You don´t want to be talking to me,” he originally tells Ryder, “I´m just the guy on the other end of the line.” By the end of the movie, of course, this working class train dispatcher is single-handedly chasing Ryder down city streets with a loaded gun. When he fires the weapon, all credibility is gone and Scott has lost control of his movie.
The plot also takes a dive. In the original, the criminal hostage-taking was a straight cash grab; not so much here, in this age of Wall Street and terrorism, as Ryder´s master plan banks on contrivances surrounding both Wall Street and terrorism. You might cringe as the plot is kinda revealed towards the end, but good thing Scott doesn´t take the time to fully explain things, or he would have got a laugh.
If James Marsh´s Man on Wire feels like a straightforward and modestly-produced BBC doc now and then, it´s because yeah, it mostly is. But when you have a subject this good you don´t need much documentary flair: you just stand back and let the story tell itself. That´s exactly what Marsh does here, and the results are utterly fascinating from the word go.
Maybe you´re old enough to remember Phillipe Petit´s ‘artistic crime of the century’, or maybe you´ve previously read about it. For whatever reason, I had never heard about it, even in the wake of 9/11, until reading advance coverage of Marsh´s doc. On August 7, 1974, Petit illegally climbed atop the World Trade Center in New York City, strung a wire across the top of the twin towers, and spent 45 minutes dancing between them.
Petit was a French tightrope walker and street performer who had seen plans for the WTC – at the time, the highest proposed buildings in the world – at a young age and decided he would walk between them; at age 24, not long after the towers were constructed, he accomplished the feat. To hear Petit explain it, it makes sense in a weird kind of way: he saw the towers, drew a line with a pencil between them, and held that as his ultimate goal, perhaps the way a mountain climber views Everest.
Man on Wire tells Petit´s incredible tale, and lets Petit tell it himself a good portion of the time. Also on hand are ex-lover Annie Allix and Petit´s friends and compatriots, both in France and in New York, those who helped him plan and execute the walk.
Marsh recounts Petit´s preparations, which included practice runs for the twin towers with walks over the cathedral at Notre Dame and at Australia´s Sydney Harbour Bridge. And then he delves into the WTC walk, covering each minute detail with a precision rarely seen; no footage exists of Petit walking across the twin towers, but the storytelling here is so good you won´t even notice.
Soundtrack – which consists of a number of Michael Nyman tracks recycled from Peter Greenaway films – perfect suits the material, adding to the sense of awe and wonder.
You rarely see a film like this among contemporary docs, outside of the work of a Ken Burns or Errol Morris; there´s almost always interference from the filmmakers. But Man on Wire is just about a perfect documentary, and a story well-worth seeking out.
Man on Wire won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at last year´s Academy Awards. Also see: The Man Who Skied Down Everest, a similar story (though a less successful documentary) that also won the Oscar, back in 1976.
Note: there is a good deal of French spoken in the film, which will be subtitled in Czech (correction: and English) on Prague screens. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk (for a mere pittance, currently).
Also opening are a pair of highly-acclaimed foreign works: Broken Embraces (showtimes | IMDb), a thriller from eclectic Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, and Sin Nombre (showtimes | IMDb), a Mexican drama from Cary Fukunaga. Both are screening in Spanish with Czech subtitles on Prague screens.