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‘Pelham’s’ Better Than a Remake

Adjusting for inflation can be a tricky thing — especially when it comes to movie remakes. Take 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” which starred Walter Matthau as a hangdog train dispatcher who becomes the central point of negotiation when a gunman (Robert Shaw) takes over a subway train. What are his demands? […]

Adjusting for inflation can be a tricky thing — especially when it comes to movie remakes.

Take 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” which starred Walter Matthau as a hangdog train dispatcher who becomes the central point of negotiation when a gunman (Robert Shaw) takes over a subway train. What are his demands? The lives of his hostages for a million dollars.

Or as Dr. Evil put it in the first “Austin Powers” movie, one … meeeelion … dollars!

Kinda quaint.

So, in the new version — which stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta  — you immediately upgrade that ransom figure to $10 million. But it isn’t enough to modulate the money. You’ve got to readjust the tenor and times of the original. You have to translate the pop culture of Nixon and bellbottoms into the post-9/11 America of now. And you have to change the vocabulary of the movie to reach a brand new generation raised on awesome.

In the 1974 film, the running gag was that New Yorkers were more cynical than the gunman. They could hardly bring themselves to believe there was a hostage situation in the first place. Their Manhattan hubris — as it were — practically screwed up any chance of constructive dialogue, let alone a rescue.

But in this day and age, that premise is so one meeelion dollars. It’s 2D. It’s old school.  Cynicism isn’t the exclusive domain of New Yorkers any more. It’s ingrained in everyone’s DNA, thanks to the age of terrorism. What interest could we possibly have in another hostage takeover? It happens in real life — or on CNN, which is the same thing — more than it does on the movie screen.

How do you adjust for cultural inflation like that?

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland has found the answer: turn the movie into an epic confess-o-thon. Even amid the hi-tech comforts of the modern world, nothing protects us from mea culpa. In fact, the new world makes it worse. With a little help from the Internet, one confession — or embarrassing indiscretion — can turn viral within minutes.

So, in the new “Pelham,” Helgeland makes it his business to expose every tightly held secret he can. We learn about painful episodes in practically every character’s life , including that of Garber, Ryder (Travolta) and even the Mayor – played with entertaining sleaziness by James Gandolfini. And we realize the joke this time is: Our secrets are much more excruciating to air in public than anything terrorists could do to us.

The new “Pelham” may not be art — but it’s terrific to sit through. It’s industrially assured; an efficient entertainment delivery system. And the two stars do what they do best — duke it out adorably.  And even though our attention’s taken up with the suspense of the moment, the psychological maneuvering by Garber, the equally deft evasions by Ryder, the snipers in the dark subway tunnel, and other breath-arresting business, our real interest is the ultimate revelation of everyone’s deepest, darkest issues.

That’s a very contemporary notion. In an action genre like this, where the propulsion of action is everything, a few internal discoveries and confessions go a long way. And it shows us a remake doesn’t have to eclipse the original movie, it just has to find an emotional chord that resonates with the audience.

 

In a world littered over with bad remakes, including “Planet of the Apes,” “Bewitched” and “Get Smart,” to reel off just three, this amounts to an artistic triumph.