June 11, 2009

Hijacked Creativity: The Taking (and Remaking) of Pelham One Two Three

I challenge anyone to give me a new answer to this simple question: What is the purpose of Tony Scott's remake of Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham of One Two Three?

It's a trick question, of course, because there is no new answer, and there has never been any acceptable answer for the dozens of remakes Hollywood has churned out over the last couple of decades, including the completely ignored (also by me) 1998 version of The Taking of Pelham 123, starring Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio.

It's not good enough that Scott's glossy blockbuster is an updated version for "a new generation". It's not good enough that it's an updated version for the fans of the original (or for that matter, a reimagining of the original - everything is the same except the ransom is up to $10 million). And it's certainly not good enough that it's a critic-proof "summer popcorn flick".

This is a movie considered by many people to be one of the great crime dramas of the 1970's. It boasts a unanimous 100% fresh RT rating, and blogging pals Chuck Bowen and Matt Gamble have recently sung its praises. Having also seen it recently, I'll add that it's an effortlessly entertaining thriller featuring great performances in the wholly unique setting of the NYC underground. The general consensus since its release 35 years ago is that, despite some dated technology (and the fact the hijackers only ask for $1 million), The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is an otherwise excellent movie.

So why bother pouring millions of dollars into a remake of a movie that simply doesn't need to be improved upon? What's the rational, and in the absence of any, why not just start remaking other great films? Give The Godfather to Michael Mann; Citizen Kane to Ron Howard, and, sure, Psycho to Gus Van Sant. I'm not being sarcastic - why isn't this happening more frequently with classic movies?

I imagine it's probably just a matter of time. Honestly, at this rate we can expect a Godfather remake any year now, and soon enough remakes of instant classics like No Country for Old Men. It will be like those idiotic "(Genre) Movie" movies that spoof movies still in theaters. Don't believe me that the remake situation is this serious? Check this out, or consider the remakes proposed by Jeff Wells, who unabashedly contends that the new Pelham is better than the original.

Why? Just...why?

Maybe the most recent trend started when dozens of hit British shows - "Britain's Got Talent" (America's Got Talent),"Pop Idol" (American Idol), "The Office," "Life on Mars", "The Weakest Link", "Hell's Kitchen", "Changing Rooms" (Trading Spaces), "Strictly Come Dancing" (Dancing With the Stars), "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" - crossed the pond and became big hits here. Soon enough Hollywood figured out, hey, we can make bigger hits out of foreign shows, so we can probably make bigger hits out of foreign movies, too (hold your nose for the upcoming American remakes of Let the Right One In and Tell No One).

Or maybe it was George Lucas and The Phantom Menace that started Hollywood's decline. If he could dust off a twenty year-old franchise and make millions from it, why couldn't everyone else? In fact, why not just make any new movie (Rush Hour, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Paul Blart: Mall Cop) a franchise to begin with?

So here we are at the peak of this trend, and desks and inboxes at production companies and studios in Hollywood are inundated with another 5-10 years worth of remakes, "reboots" (see, we even had to create a new term!), and sequels. And the worst part is, it's really difficult not to be tempted into seeing these new versions (as was the case most recently with Terminator Salvation). When somebody remakes The Godfather, are you telling me you won't end up seeing it? You'll have to see someone's attempt at an impossible feat, if only to see how miserably they fail. And while we're standing in line to watch the latest disaster, filmmakers with fresh, original stories (e.g., Ballast) are basically forced into self-financing and self-distributing their projects.
Is this OK?

What's really being hijacked in the remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not the subway car but the plot of the original film. There's a ransom demanded for the safe return of creativity to Hollywood. Anyone want to chip in? We should start by pooling the money we'll spend at the box office this weekend.

UPDATE: So I ended up seeing it (opening weekend), and can confirm it's one of the worst movies I've seen so far this year. What a waste.


  1. Excellent post. As I posted on my blog last week I'm boycotting all remakes and reimaginings this summer. Even Star Trek. And sequels like Terminator: Retardation. I refuse to keep funding this crap.

  2. Thanks, Tommy. I'll need to check out that post. You're a stronger man than I if you're able to fully boycott these. Like I said, I weakly give into the temptation to see the remakes of these classics. If somebody remakes some garbage like The Happening, chances are I won't see it. But something like Pelham and Terminator - I have to see them, albeit it with a "What do you think you're doing?" attitude. It's bad, I know, that I continue to indirectly support them.

    And regarding the two you mention, well from where I sit you haven't missed much...

    (nervously looks around for Trekkies on the prowl...)

  3. Tony Scott is an excellent action film director: Enemy of the State, Man on Fire. And I love True Romance. I would be so pumped if Scott were directing an original crime drama this summer - something like Mann's Heat. I guess Hollywood feels that originality won't sell. Very sad. Excellent post. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Hokahey. I tried not to take any potshots at Tony Scott because I don't really think he's the problem here (and besides, he'll forever have my thanks for Top Gun). If the studio pitches it to him then I can't fault him for taking it, at least not completely.

    But I still have some mixed feelings about the guy. This is his 4th movie with Denzel (with another on the way) and I don't think he's pulled a great performance out of him yet. Plus he's on tap to direct Emma's War, a movie that I'd rather not be made. Moreover, his next movie is a remake of The Warriors! Maybe he is part of the problem...

  5. I called this in my post "The State of the American Horror Movie" the Season of Remakes.

    You hit the nail on the head. It is a safe bet for them to remake something than to go out on the limb with something original.

    I will probably be watching the original Taking before or after I see the remake.

    I think they gave too much of it away in the commercials though.

    I will definitely be seeing Moon this weekend.

  6. "Terminator: Retardation". Hah hah. Excellent, Tommy.

    You're on a roll with these posts, Danny. Lots of mesmerizing food for thought here at GETAFILM the last little while.

    "What is the purpose of Tony Scott's remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE?"

    Um...Money??? Ya think? No, it's not a new answer. But I'm sure it's one of the accurate ones.

    It sure as hell isn't for intellectual enrichment.

    And there WON'T be a remake of THE GODFATHER. Not during this particular generation anyway. Or in the forseeable future.

    FRANCIS and PARAMOUNT would never allow that.

    Another sequel? Oh, that could certainly happen.

    But they really missed the boat on that. They could have done another one in the 90s when Andy Garcia was still young and vital and hotter than a nuclear meltdown.

    As to whether or not it would have been any good...

    Probably not top of the line.

    But if someone can whip up a tolerable script for another installment, that COULD get the green light while we're still around.

  7. Miranda's right: I don't think you have to look any further than money, money and a conservative mentality among investors. Why invest money in something new and risky when you can get a tried and true script/idea/formula that people will go see? Look at what film-book.com said: he or she is going to go see the thing AND the original. People will go see the remake anyway, even if they know the original is a classic, as it is.

    And plenty of people will be turned off by the "date technology." Whose fault is it that the average filmgoer has no historical perspective?

  8. oops ... that's "dated technology"

  9. Film-Book, I do recommend checking out the original beforehand. After this one it will seem quaint and old-fashioned. And Moon is highly enjoyable if for no other reason than Clint Mansell's amazing score.

    Haha, Miranda, good old Garcia - hotter than a nuclear meltdown. Yeah his career kind of went nowhere quickly after the mid-90's. His performance in Oceans 11 didn't even do much for me. And as much as I'd rather not see another Godfather installment, I'd rather it be now, with Pacino and Garcia, instead of in 20 years with Zac Efron.

    Yeah, Rick, the technology is really what would throw people off if they watched the original. But again, that's just no excuse for remaking an entire movie. If so you'd have to do it with every old movie (and we know they're trying).

    So money is the consensus here, but that still does little to convince me. A number of these (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, let it be cursed forever) are not making a massive return on their investment considering the production budgets. If they were making $200 million on each picture, then it would make a little more sense; Land of the Lost will be lucky to break even, let alone profit at all. But I guess everybody thinks theirs will be the next big hit.

    Thanks for all of your thoughts. I realize I've said literally nothing that hasn't been sad before with any of these recent posts, but as you can tell I've been in a bit of ranting mood over the last week. Not really sure why.

  10. With most mainstream films being all but unwatchable, and with tickets getting higher and higher; as home video/camera/distribution becomes more and more accessible, we're ripe for the kind of revolution that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. We've already seen filmmakers try and largely fail (I find many of the acclaimed low budget movies as difficult to watch for different reasons) and hopefully this will blossom into a new American movement. I have hope. People have proclaimed doom in every era with potentially destablizing shifts in culture. This is (hopefully) no different.

  11. Bless your optimistic spirit, Chuck. I really hope you're right, because that would be a lot of fun to watch.

    By the way, really loved reading your thoughts on the original Pelham after finally seeing it:

    "Saving us from ironically cheering immorality is Walter Matthau, whose contributions to this film should not be under-estimated. I hear that Tony Scott is preparing a remake with (who else?) Denzel Washington. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Denzel can be a terrific actor but, by this point, he might as well be Superman. We don’t look at Denzel and wonder whether he was able to pay his taxes last year, or if he had trouble getting coffee stains out of his blazer (that he probably wears to work everyday). We don’t look at Denzel and hope that he’s able to make his alimony payment this month. We look at Denzel and we say “that’s a fucking bad ass.” And that’s perfect for certain pictures, you’ll never hear me saying that Walter Matthau should’ve played Denzel’s part in Training Day, but in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Walter Matthau is perfect. Tony Scott should cast Paul Giamatti in the Matthau part, that would show that he understands (or cares about) the material that he’s remaking.

    We root for Walter Matthau because Walter Matthau doesn’t belong; he isn’t the guy that we imagine handling a ruthless hostage imbroglio. He’s the guy that sneaks a beer at lunch, or is entrusted with thankless chores such as giving a tour of the station to a group of Japanese visitors..."

    People should read on to experience the rest of your brilliance there...

  12. Studios can't resist the presold buzz they get with remakes, sequels and adaptations of TV shows. Every time there's the slightest hint of something familiar, my newsfeed lights up as all the movie websites jump in with their (usually positive) opinions.

    People automatically gravitate toward the familiar over the unknown and the studios are just going to keep taking advantage of that fact until it not longer works. Why go to all the trouble of creating something from scratch when you can have a built in audience?

  13. Yeah I suppose they have to go where the comfort lies and meet audiences where they are. Can't take a "risk" of trying something original that they have to fight for.

    This whole issue, in my head, was actually heightened quite a bit by the same analysis that you did a few weeks back. It's frustrating to learn that they literally are trying for the easiest dollar at this point, and blatantly admit to doing so.


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