07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Meditations on a Remake: The Taking Of Pelham 123

(Note: This blog contains spoilers.)

I have to admit it: the new "Taking Of Pelham 123" wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. (It's somewhat scary though when this reaction seems like the best you can hope for.)

Incidentally, I have a theory about remakes: in very few instances do they outshine the originals.

Indie producer/ director Roger Corman once told me why: think of all the moving parts and variables on a film production...all the things that can go wrong, all the areas where a movie can somehow fall short.

In Corman's view, with hits (and for recognition value, remakes tend to be made off past hits), the all-important fundamentals of the movie fall into place via some sort of ethereal creative alchemy. No director can force this to happen - when it does occur, all he or she can do is try to make the most of it.

Thus, from this perspective, attempting a remake is akin to making lightning strike twice.

As if to echo Corman, Michael Caine, who admittedly has appeared in his fair share of dreck, once mused that Hollywood would be wiser to remake indifferent films, rather than the winners.

"Why set yourself up to fail?", he asked reasonably.

I've always loved the original "Pelham" from 1974. It evokes the slightly run-down version of the Manhattan I knew as a kid. Like the city itself then, what the first "Pelham" lacks in polish, it makes up for in character and spirit.

The high body count is not what you remember, it's the characters: Walter Matthau as Zack Garber, world weary and with a mug like an old saddle-bag. In one memorable scene, he gently ridicules a group of Japanese subway officials as he gives them a tour of the MTA facilities- until he realizes they actually do speak English. Matthau's cohorts-like Jerry Stiller, the late James Broderick (Matthew's Dad) and Kenneth McMillan, each reflect a distinctly pungent spice in the varied melting pot of working New Yorkers.

Leading the villains is an intensely understated Robert Shaw, overseeing a motley band of bad guys...yet these bad guys are actually distinct, identifiable characters, each with their own tics and quirks. Both Martin Balsam (burdened with a bad head cold which serves as an ingenious plot device), and Hector Elizondo stand out in these roles.

Watching Tony Scott's well-received updating of the story predictably made me nostalgic for earlier times and earlier ways of making action pictures. Scott employs all the expected bells and whistles of today's blockbuster action film- swirling cameras, deafening music, rapid cutting, over-the-top stunts, graphic violence and language- to create an admittedly involving and diverting movie. Yet the subtlety and seasoning of the first humble effort is lost.

Standing in as the alpha baddie this time out, John Travolta is fun to watch, though at times his "Ryder" seems to be channeling Vince Vega from "Pulp Fiction". There is no mystery to his character, however- where Shaw's ring-leader was a terse, cool customer who carried the threat of death in his steely, dead eyes, Travolta spews venomous spit all over the place. The number of times the "f" word is used may set new records, not that anyone's counting.

But just when we're getting comfortable with him as a ruthless psychopath, we learn that he used to be a Wall Street finance wizard who got caught with his hand in the till. Gee- where did they come up with that one?

Also, Travolta's henchmen-even the talented Luis Guzman- play ciphers here, brutal-looking thugs who grunt more than speak. Their personalities and purpose feel wholly interchangeable within the action picture realm.

In the earlier picture, director Joseph Sargent made the City Hall portrayals satirical to leaven the tension. The addled, flu-afflicted Mayor was clearly modeled on Ed Koch, intended to mirror the calamitous state of city governance, as New York City was then hovering close to financial default.

James Gandolfini plays the new Mayor as a cynical operator with nary a trace of humor or irony. But here the film continues to reinforce those oh-so-familiar types: since the Mayor is a politician, he must also be a recently exposed philanderer...saw that one coming too!

All of which brings me to the central character...Here at least the film-makers tried to do the right thing, attempting to make the Garber character more layered and ambiguous. Washington's Garber is no longer a transit cop, but a formerly high-ranking MTA executive demoted to manning the switchboard pending a bribery allegation.

Ah...the old (very old) redemption remaining at the center of the crisis, Walter Garber can win back the trust and respect of his superiors in one fell swoop.

OK, but for me there's a problem. When Matthau ultimately tracks down Shaw with a gun, it seems only appropriate: he's a transit cop. But Denzel is in full mouse disguise with this character, complete with glasses and a sweater vest. When all of a sudden the film puts him into super-hero mode towards the end of the picture, we don't quite buy it. Or at least I didn't.

I know, I know...I'm over-thinking this, right? Sorry, but it's my natural reaction when so much of what we see on today's movie screens encourages us not to think at all.

Even so, in all good conscience I cannot label the new "Pelham" a total failure. It's a slick, sleek piece of work that delivers the action goods to a new generation of viewers who value images over words, action over character, and demonstration over suggestion.

And if a couple of credibility gaps pop up along the way, no big deal. Soon enough there'll be another sequence where someone gets mowed down by an automatic weapon from three inches away, and the resulting jolt should render issues of sense and logic irrelevant.

Still, if I have to choose between these two Walters, make mine Matthau.

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