The Hollywood studio system, humming along with surprising resilience since the Great Depression, spat out 610 movies in 2008, the vast majority feature-length fictional narratives with the same actors, writers, directors, electricians, plotlines, special effects and special effects supervisors as the year before and the year before that. That’s why it’s a system—because the same movies are systematically being made over and over again.
Another six hundred American films will be released this year, and despite their tragic similarities to last year’s crop, almost every single one is being marketed, at great expense, as the newest, biggest, loudest, most exciting, explosive, expletive-filled, multiply orgasmic experience of your life.
Surprise. They’re not. Here’s three reasons why The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, on the surface a fresh action adventure, is just something old made new again:
1. It is a literal remake. Actually, it’s a remake of a remake of an adaptation of a novel. Morton Freedgood wrote a 1973 paperback thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, in which four criminals hijack a New York City subway car for a million dollars. It was made into a movie the following year with Robert Shaw as the British lead hijacker, Ryder, and Walter Matthau as a crusty Transit Authority policeman who tries to catch him. Twenty-five years later, it was remade as a television movie. And finally, here it is again, with John Travolta as a more brutish, brutal Ryder, and Denzel Washington as the embattled subway dispatcher on the other side of the radio.
2. It retreads one of the most consistent, tiresome and propagandistic themes of American movies—that the U.S of A. is the greatest country on earth. The head office of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is two blocks from the White House, with good reason—friends stay close. Washington has always lent Hollywood its weight abroad, because it understands that Denzel is a far more insidious and effective colonizer than an Army division.
During World War II, the government actually commissioned films from top Hollywood directors, like John Ford and Frank Capra. Pelham’s director, Tony Scott, might as well be on the payroll, with films that routinely rhapsodize about America’s strength and spirit. He directed Top Gun (1986)—enough said. An early scene in Crimson Tide (1994) shows a Navy crew—handsome, spruced and patriotic—standing in formation in the rain. It’s great—if it doesn’t make you gag. Deja Vu (2006) was explicitly dedicated to the supposedly heroic people of New Orleans. If surviving a major hurricane constitutes heroism, we need about 2.8 million medals in a hurry.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 features sunset panoramas of the Manhattan skyline and characters who spout post-9/11 drivel like, “Makes you realize what you’re fighting for, doesn’t it?” We get it. You love your country.
3. In addition to being directed by Tony Scott, it stars Denzel Washington. This has happened three times before—in Crimson Tide, Man on Fire (2004) and Deja Vu—although Denzel’s alter ego seems to shrink in stature each time. In Crimson Tide, he was the strapping, brilliant second-in-command of a US Navy nuclear submarine, with the power to annihilate half of Russia. Man on Fire made him an ex-CIA bodyguard who singlehandedly took down a Mexican kidnapping ring. He was a troubled and lonely ATF agent in Deja Vu—at least he still had a gun. His subway dispatcher in Pelham is never in control—under investigation by superiors, under demands by Ryder, he looks to others before making a move.
It’s big, it’s loud and it’s explosive, but you might want to let Pelham 1 2 3 pass you by. There’ll be a new movie next week, right?