People trapped inside the cold steel of big machines. Check.
Ticking clocks relentlessly counting down to disaster. Check.
Battles of will between A-list actors. Check again.
Director Tony Scott must have known he had a good thing in 1995’s Crimson Tide and was looking to repeat it with this year’s re-make of the classic The Taking of Pelham 123. As far as action directors go, Scott (brother of Ridley) is in the very elite. He makes movies that are almost always worth the price of a ticket at the cineplex. The best are tense, scary, hard-edged ones where his screenwriters give him high stakes and the dialogue to support them (often for Denzel Washington) and then he paces the hell out of the film itself. We have a real fight on our hands with some Scott-on-Scott violence.
The 2009 The Taking of Pelham 123 takes its inspiration from the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three which took its inspiration from the same novel written by John Godey. In the hands of current screenwriter Brian Helgeland, the central idea — bad guys board a New York subway and take the passengers hostage while demanding a huge ransom — remains the same. He’s given us a few new twists, like the lead hijacker, Ryder (John Travolta) is now an ex-con and the negotiator, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is now a transit executive. Then director Scott bends and twists it through pacing, tone and special effects. In this film, Travolta drives the action but it’s Washington who gets put on the spot in one particularly tough moment when, without benefit of waterboarding or other enhanced interrogation techniques, the hijacker gets the negotiator to confess to a crime of his own. It’s one of those “what would you do” moments and particularly effective as played by Washington.
Last year Crimson Tide came out on Blu-ray and gave a lot of movie fans a chance to experience its power again. Written by Michael Schiffer with contributions by a host of other writers than even includes Quentin Tarantino, it is a relentlessly tense morality tale that squeezes its power out of the last gasp on the Cold War, a time when a blind and deaf nuclear submarine could trigger the destruction of the entire Earth about ten-thousand times faster than global warming. Unable to confirm a nuclear launch order during a time of incredible international tension, both Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) square off over what to do next. One of them has the rules on his side and the other has the logic of survival. It includes some wonderful dialogue for these men to say to each other including Hackman’s classic, “We’re here to preserve democracy, Mister Hunter, not to practice it.”
While these are both action movies defined by the two central characters who stand in opposition to each other, the clear winner here as define only by character has to be Crimson Tide because both Washington’s Hunter and Hackman’s Ramsey are right and wrong at the same time. It’s truly a fair fight in the motivation game. In The Taking of Pelham 123, Washington’s Garber is the good guy and Travolta’s Ryder is the bad guy. Since this is a commercial film, we know how it has to end. I suppose you could say the same about whether or not the submarine Alabama will launch or not but it never feels that way because the fight is so damn fair that anything could happen.
All the actors are excellent. Denzel Washington is brilliant as Lt. Commander Hunter in Crimson Tide and he’s entirely credible and real as Walter Garber in The Taking of Pelham 123. The two actors he plays off against, Gene Hackman in the former and John Travolta in the latter, are both terrific, too, but first among equals is Hackman who gives us a Captain who is as credible as he is scary. Stack Hackman up against the men who have played Bligh in any of the Bounty films — Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, or Anthony Hopkins — and he still shines brightest. It’s a performance with so many levels in it that it should be taught in acting classes.
Both films rely on special effects to create the reality surrounding their worlds. It’s more effective in the nearly sci-fi like universe of a nuclear submarine and less welcome in what should be the gritty look of New York City’s subway system. As an example, I know subway trains can’t go as fast as they do in Pelham but my lack of knowledge of nuclear subs never forces me into a similar realization on Tide.
The scripts for both films are also top-notch, but Crimson Tide is the revelation. It takes you on a ride that, despite all the great sub movies like Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October, you still feel like you’ve never been on. In contrast, The Taking of Pelham 123, no matter how well executed, still feels familiar which it probably can’t avoid, being a re-make. But even if it was an original, the building blocks it’s been assembled with have been pilfered by a generation of action directors, and it’s just a bit shopworn.
The clocks in both films are wound tightly but Crimson Tide picks its clock and sticks with it through the end. In contrast, The Taking of Pelham 123 starts its clock, rings the tension it can out of it, then moves past it.
You may scoff (believe me, others have) but along with The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, and a few others, Crimson Tide is one of my favorite films ever. I’ve seen it on more than half a dozen occasions, most recently on a Blu-ray in a great home theater. It does not disappoint. For me, it remains a friend I love to visit just to stay in touch.
I enjoyed watching The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s an excellent diversion, and if you can see it in a great theater on a giant screen with incredible sound (like Muvico’s great 4K digital projection where I saw it) then, by all means, you should. It’s fun.
But in the world of Smackdown where two films step into the ring and only one walks out on its own power, the winner is the Alabama where the stakes are humanity itself and the outcome is uncertain. See Crimson Tide if you never have, and if you have, see it again.