Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Just got back from a long shift at the video store, and I'm tired...Not used to being on my feet all day. I'm used to sitting here, writing posts to all of you.

Anyway, wanted to comment on this movie The Taking of Pelham 123, what that I rented the other day from the store. I must have seen it on television as a kid or something because the whole thing was vaguely familiar to me (guys hijack a train, Walter Matthau tries to stop them), but I'd never realized just how great this movie was until yesterday.

And influential! The story of a group of terrorists, wearing disguises and using color-coded nicknames (a trick Tarantino would rip off for Reservoir Dogs), who hijack a Manhattan subway train and shut down all transit in the city, created the formula that a great deal of subsequent 80's and 90's action movies would follow. Namely, efficient, well-organized, European terrorists taking hostages and making outrageous demands who can only be outwitted and outgunned by a plucky, unexpected protagonist. This was Die Hard 11 years before there was a Die Hard.

The caper takes up the entire film. There's no exposition, character introductions, nothing. We meet Mr. Blue (a brilliant Robert Shaw) and his team (who include Hector Elizondo as the gratuitous "bad guy with a psychotic streak" and Martin Balsam as the reluctant villain along for the ride). They kidnap a dozen or so passengers, and then it's up to Transit Authority policeman Walter Matthau to save the hostages and bring the evildoers to justice. That's it.

I really admired the simplicity of the movie. There's no attempt to give every character a lame quirk or catchphrase, no silly backstory to contend with, and no romantic sub-plots. Compare that to a modern-day film that rips off the basic idea of Pelham, like Speed, for example. In Speed, there's a pretty clever (if implausible) set-up - a terrorist has attached a bomb to a bus set to explode if the bus stops moving. However, effective though that film may be, we're constantly being taken out of the action to learn about Keanu Reeves' tragic past or meet all the individual, diverse hostages and get to know them or develop a love interest in amateur bus driver Sandra Bullock. Pelham doesn't bother with these sort of inane tangents, focusing instead on the immediate intensity of the situation, and exploring the city's response to the hijacking in-depth.

The plan itself isn't really all that clever, I suppose, but the machinations themselves aren't what matters. Director Joseph Sargent builds up the tension beautifully, particularly during the delightfully nerve-wracking final sequence (which I will not spoil for you here). My one real complaint is the script by Peter Stone: it's well-structured and thoughtful, but he tries to inject a bit too much broad comedy into the proceedings. Maybe I've just seen too many movies squeezing jokes out of New Yorker's reputations for argressive behavior, but after a few minutes, I wished everyone would stop cracking wise for a few minutes and take this heist more seriously.

The real centerpiece of the film is Mr. Blue, a truly wonderful villain who would inspire a generation of action movie antagonists, particularly the Grubers (Alan Rickman & Jeremy Irons) from the Die Hard films. Blue is cold, cold, cold. While making demands of the police, he's nonchalantly flipping through a crossword puzzle book, without a care in the world. He guns down hostages with the dead eyes of a homicidal maniac. And during his final showdown with the authorities, his reaction is so casual, you wonder briefly if he's even aware of what's going on. It's a fantastic performance, and I'd say it was Shaw's best, if he didn't outdo it the very next year with Quint in Jaws, one of my favorite characters in the history of the movies.

And, of course, Matthau is terrific as well. He really makes the most out of the comic aspects of the script, without ever verging into parody or camp. His balance of masterful comic timing with a well-honed sense of appropriateness and tone was what elevated Matthau performances, and Pelham is no different. I'm reminded of his work in the terrific Charley Varrick, where he likewise balances gritty edge with warm likability. The supporting cast is great, too, including a few recognizable faces from the 70's (like Jerry Stiller, as another New York Transit cop).

This is going to be the first film in a new series I'll be posting here on the blog, featuring older movies you may not have seen that deserve your attention. I figured, since I'm renting so many random older movies these days, once a week or so, I'll let you all know what it is I'm going back and seeing. These reviews will probably be more fun to write, for me anyway, than the reviews of new stuff in theaters, only because I'll be selecting the movies based on what I wanted to watch (or watch again). Anyway, each week's classic film will be highlighted on the right, so come back and check for updates!


Lons' Mom said...

I was thinking that we needed reviews of those older classic films. Perhaps you could put together a collection?

Anonymous said...

Shouldn't it be "Lon's Mom"? I hope your neck is better.

Lons said...

The neck's most of the way better. Thanks for your concern.

As for the grammatical query, I go by the nickname "Lons" on the blog. So, I figured, the possessive form of Lons would be Lons'. However, as my real name is Lon, you are, in fact, technically correct.

Anonymous said...

my father took me to see this film when i was younger in the theater, it has never left me, what an awesome flick.

Anonymous said...

Awesome movie...I just saw it on cable the other day and all I can say is that given the fact that so many "modern" movies have borrowed elements from this cops and robbers drama Pel 1-2-3 has got to be one of the most underrated movies of all time.