My London trip allowed me to see Tony Scott‘s The Taking of Pelham 123 twice — on the way over and the way back. And don’t laugh but I think it deserves to be one of the ten Best Picture nominees. The idea in nominating ten is to promote and celebrate a movie or two that guys like Scott Foundas and Dennis Lim don’t approve of, right? That Average Joes paid to see and actually enjoyed?
This is precisely the kind of shrewd, sharp-angled, deftly layered urban thriller that high-end Hollywood filmmakers like Scott are better at making than anyone else in the world. And I’m convinced after watching The Taking of Pelham 123 that it’s a damn near perfect film for what it is. The sucker never lags or falls into clicheville, it has a crafty plot with well-massaged characterization, it’s always psychologically complex or at least diverting, it delivers first-rate performances and just rocks out up and down.
And so somewhere over the Atlantic I began asking myself why a film as well-made and fully engaging as this one can’t be nominated for Best Picture? Because it’s a summer movie and summer movies don’t win awards? Of course they don’t, and of course this one can’t. The suggestion is to pop Pelham into the ranks of Best Picture contenders in order to round out the pack and toss a bone to the lowbrows and guilty-pleasure fixaters like myself.
What are the most likely ten Best Picture nominees at this stage? Up In The Air, Invictus, The Hurt Locker, An Education, Nine and A Serious Man. These are the six locks, in my view. Then you have Bright Star (maybe), Up (maybe but what’s the reason to lift it out of the Best Animated Feature category?), Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (probably but it’s so grim and dark, and isn’t it more of a performance film than a rock-solid cinematic achievement?), and possibly A Single Man.
I don’t think these last four are locks at all, and you can argue, I suppose, that A Serious Man might not be a given either. But any way you slice it there’s not a popcorn-muncher among these, and shouldn’t there be? At least one, I mean?
Early last June I wrote that The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is “an unquestionably better film — more rousing and flavorful, zippier and craftier — than the 1974 Joseph Sargent original. It’s a very satisfying summer-crime fuckall flick. A retread, yes, but with an attitude all its own…pow!
“Scott’s Pelham is first-rate crackerjack escapism because (a) it knows itself and is true to that, (b) it’s content to operate in its own realm (i.e., isn’t trying to top the chase sequences, effects and explosions in the last big urban actioner…it’s not playing that game) and (c) it’s just a solid all-around popcorn movie, full of focus and discipline.
“Scott exhibits the same precision and intelligent pizazz he used for Man on Fire and Crimson Tide. Is Pelham some kind of drop-to-your-knees golden fleece movie? No — just another urban slam-banger but smart, clever and muscle-car sweet.
“The New York subway-kidnap hostage thriller has more intricate plotting than the ’74 film, richer characterizations of the top MTA guy (Denzel Washington in the old Walter Matthau role) and top-dog hostage-taking badass (John Travolta in the Robert Shaw role) and a slew of supporting performances across the board that are much more vivid and interesting than those from the class of ’74, and at the same time less broad and farcical.
“Plus the Travolta and Washington characters are more psychologically layered; more work has put into their rationales and backstories. In hindsight Matthau’s performance seems humdrum and almost glib in comparison to Washington’s. And Travolta…my God, he’s a friggin’ madman in this thing! Fierce, irate, flying off the handle, lunging — his finest bad guy since the ‘ain’t it cool?’ guy in Broken Arrow.
“And James Gandolfini‘s New York Mayor isn’t the buffoon figure from the ’74 film — he’s playing a rationale, practical, somewhat full-of-shit politician, and he does so with an unforced attitude..
“The 2009 Pelham was made by a guy who understands and respects the original, and who sincerely wanted to make a better film — and he did! Integrating it very nicely and believably into a 2009 realm. And very grippingly and thrillingly. There’s no boredom to be had, and it never overcranks it. ”