How does one of the most universally respected actors of this generation - Denzel Washington - come to trust director Tony Scott and his obvious fascination with style over substance? Since their first collaboration on Crimson Tide in 1995, Washington and Scott have teamed up in recent years for Man on Fire, Dèjá Vu and now the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, with yet another film together scheduled for 2011. Stewart/Hitchcock! DeNiro/Scorsese! Depp/Burton! Washington/Scott! One of these things is not like the others.
It's not that Washington suddenly turns into a hack-by-association in his Scott-directed films. Here he plays Walter Garber, a New York Transit Authority employee who has the bad luck to be on the other end of radio dispatch when a subway train is hijacked. A guy calling himself Ryder (John Travolta), leading a quartet of gunmen, has given the city one hour to deliver $10 million. While fears of a terrorist attack spread, Garber and Ryder play the kind of cat-and-mouse game that you get in movies of this kind.
The original 1974 version of John Godey's novel was no masterpiece, but it was a fascinating time capsule of decaying mid-'70s New York City, as well as being ahead of its time as a kind of straightforward, Law and Order-style procedural where nuances of character were utterly wiped away in favor of brute plot mechanics. In screenwriter Brian Helgeland's version, Garber gets a back-story involving allegations of accepting bribes; Ryder similarly switches from a coldly analytical mercenary to a guy with an ax to grind. More complex characters, better story...right?
Not necessarily. As gifted as Washington may be as an actor, he's almost too charismatic to play the kind of beaten-down bureaucrat demanded by this twist in the character. Sporting a paunch and ugly clothes that appear to have been stolen from Walter Matthau's Garber, he can't sell ordinariness, especially when he's later required to turn into an action hero dashing through New York City traffic. Ryder becomes an even bigger disaster, because making him a high-strung guy means giving Travolta license to go into "hammy psycho" mode.
Tony Scott's trademark visual shenanigans have grown increasingly tiresome, to the point that it becomes almost impossible to care about anything that's going on in The Taking of Pelham 123. Scott jerks us through the air with panoramic establishing shots, does slow-motion whip-pans through Manhattan streets and generally acts like a 3-year-old who doesn't think his picture is actually finished until he's used every crayon color in the box.
It's easy to understand the lure of remaking this particular thriller for the post-9/11 era, where it feels like we're all just one incident away from running screaming into the streets. But Scott hasn't made a film about hysteria; he has simply made a hysterical film. You just want to grab it by the shoulders, jam it into the nearest chair and tell it to settle the hell down. Whatever gifts as a storyteller Denzel Washington appears to see in Tony Scott over and over again, he needs to convey them to the rest of us before it's his career that winds up hijacked.