Sunday, 8 January 2012

Cinemaniacal: Something I Saw On TV...

My satellite TV service just added four new channels, all movies all the time. There is an all Warner Bros. Channel, there's an all MGM/UA channel, and one channel dedicated to big blockbusters from other studios, and another dedicated to smaller indie / art house / award monger type movies, all broadcast with a vivid high definition picture.

The scheduling is eclectic, veering between classics created by and starring movie legends, to some real crap-fests, created by and starring hacks. But it reminds me of when I was a kid and stations used to run movies of all stripes, at any time they could cram them in. Now I'd like them to run more black and white flicks, but they maybe coming down the pike once they're more established.

Anyhoo, these channels have been giving my PVR a workout, and have allowed me to catch up on some favorites the way they were meant to be seen by the original filmmakers, and to be honest, they're kind of depressing, especially when you compare it to today's film making.
One such film is the 1974 thriller classic The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3.

The premise is pretty simple, 4 men, led by "Mr Blue" played by Robert Shaw, armed with sub-machine guns take a subway car with 18 passengers hostage. They are demanding $1 million in 1 hour, or they will kill a hostage for every minute they're late.

In the middle of the situation is Lt. Zachary Garber, played by Walter Matthau, of the New York Transit Authority Police.  He's in charge of security for the subways, and it's his job to get the hostages out alive.

The suspense of the film comes from the very simple fact that hijackings and hostage situations were still fairly new in the early 70s, and nobody then was exactly sure how to handle them. "Rescue" operations consisted of storming the occupied building and shooting everything that moved, a strategy that was being rethought in the wake of the disastrous Attica Prison riots of the 1960s.

Add to that New York's status in the 1970s as an "ungovernable" city that was flat broke, overrun with crime, official corruption, and managerial incompetence. Those who actually could do their jobs were hobbled by not only the things I just listed, but by the simple fact that most of the technology they were using was last upgraded during World War 2.

Everyone on the side of the good guys is in way over their head. Lt. Garber is forced to literally make everything up as he goes along. The Mayor is sick with the flu, wildly unpopular, and scared out of his wits to make a decision as illustrated in this scene where the Mayor, his Deputy, and other top city officials debate on whether or not to pay the ransom:
Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle: All right, Al. You've heard from the Three Wise Men. Now what do you say?
Mayor: What are THEY going to say, Warren?
Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle: "They" who?
Mayor: Who? Everybody - the press, the man on the street.
Mayor's wife: He means the voters.
Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle: You know what they're going to say. The Times is going to support you. The News is going to knock you. The Post will take both sides at the same time. The rich will support you, likewise the blacks, and the Puerto Ricans won't give a shit. So come on, Al, quit stalling!
Mayor: Will you stop bullying everybody, Warren? This is supposed to be a democracy!
Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle: Wise up, for chrissake, we're trying to run a city, not a goddamn democracy! Al, quit farting around - we've got to pay!
Mayor: Jessie, Jessie, what do you say?
Mayor's wife: I know a million dollars sounds like a lot of money. But just think what you'll get in return.
Mayor: What?
Mayor's wife: Eighteen sure votes.
Mayor: All right, all right. Warren, Warren, arrange for the payoff!
Deputy Mayor Warren LaSalle: Hallelujah.
Face it, the only people in the film who are not struggling to gain control of their situation is Mr. Blue, the lead hijacker, and Deputy Mayor LaSalle.

Director Joseph Sargent masterfully shows the full scale of the event, and by doing so, ratchets up the tension. While you're watching you know that the whole thing can go all wrong, and people will die, if just one of these people screws up their small part in it. Add to that David Shire's relentlessly driving musical score, clever doses of dark humor, and you've got a thriller with great re-watching value.

Now sadly, something that is re-watchable is something that Hollywood thinks is worth a remake.

They first did it for television in 1998, with Edward James Olmos as the cop and Vincent D'onofrio as Mr. Blue. But that was forgotten before the end credits ran, so I'm going to talk about the 2009 reboot.

Now the world of 1974 is wildly different from the world of 2009 and that's reflected in the remake.  Take for example Mr. Blue, the villain.  In the original played by Robert Shaw.
In the original the character is a professional mercenary. A man with a military background especially with detailed planning, complete disregard for human life, and what he believes to be complete and total control of the situation.  Now he deliberately disguises himself to appear as bland, and innocuous as possible, in fact, every member of the gang wears the same disguise. That's so witnesses would have a hard time describing them.  He's taken every detail into consideration, and his only weakness is his confidence in his own intelligence.

But a villain who proves himself ruthless and dangerous comes in second to a villain who looks like he's dangerous, like they did with the new villain played by John Travolta.
Where the original villain wanted to be a blank slate to facilitate his escape, the new villain telegraphs that he's supposed to be mad, bad, and dangerous to know, who is completely out of control. Of course this time, he's not an unemployed mercenary, he's some Wall Street guy who did time for insider trading and is looking for revenge and money.

Because so many Wall Street guys shoot people.

But that's not the most inane part. Now simply taking hostages for ransom, even one 10X the ransom in the original movie just isn't enough, the villain has to be using the chaos caused by the hostage taking for an elaborate stock scam.

Stop and think about that for a second.  The villain literally puts himself in the line of fire not for money, but to set up the conditions he needs to make money.

That's a scheme from a completely different movie, and completely negates the necessity for Travolta's "Ryder" to be even in the subway car. Other kinds of terrorist attacks, done by other people that are kept at arm's length from him, could have had the same effect. So the writer's attempt to "update" the villain's plot, simply makes the villain pretty stupid. (An obvious reason to get Ryder on the train, would be for the hostage taking to be a cover for a heist using New York's vast underground tunnel network. But studio bosses wouldn't like that because it doesn't let them use the "businessman as villain" cliche they love so much.)

And let's not forget that in the days after 9-11 the doctrine is to assume that any hostage taker is going after mass casualties. Then there's the fact that NYPD has elite officers trained to handle such scenarios by trying to get the hostage takers to talk, to give said elite officers time to get in position to take them out as quickly as possible.

Now let's go to the hero of the story: Garber.  In the original he was played by:
Walter Matthau embodied Garber as an overwhelmed civil servant, uncomfortable in the role of hero, just trying desperately to keep the body count to a minimum while he figured out what the hell to do next.

In the remake Garber was played by Denzel Washington.
Denzel Washington is probably one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. He brings an air of heroic command and manly confidence to any role, and that's why he was wrong for the part. He's too manly, too heroic, and putting some padding around the middle and some glasses on just aren't enough to make him the overwhelmed schlub that Garber is supposed to be in order to amp up the suspense.

The closest comparison to Denzel Washington's casting would be if the producers had cast John Wayne as Garber in the 1974 original. The suspense would be dampened because who could beat John Wayne?

But Hollywood has the feeling that audiences don't have the patience to actually discover a story, so they have to telegraph everything about the movie, including the ending, before the opening credits are done, and that's if they even have opening credits. Then, with the story pretty much spent right at the beginning, they then try to make up for it by tossing in tons of money to pay for lots of over the top action, and hyper-shaky/pseudo-suspenseful camera work and choppy music video style editing.

As I've written about on this blog before, the box office take is down, DVD sales are collapsing, and this are going to keep getting worse, because audiences are going to television, the internet, and older movies available via streaming services like Netflix.


Because that's where they're finding stories

When it comes to the movies from the major studios, the bigger the picture, the smaller the story.  And what little story they do have has been picked apart by executives saying things solely to justify their existence, market research gurus pulling stuff out of their ass because they really don't have a magic bullet, and stars obsessing about things that have very little to do with the quality of the story.

Hollywood needs to look at its own past, not for remake material, but for lessons about telling stories.
Then maybe its downward slide can be stopped.


  1. Well, yeah, but you cherry picked the one '70s action film that they screwed up in the remake. What about, oh, the remake of Day of the Jackal?

  2. I think you need to up your meds... and the voltage.

  3. Pfft. The guy in the original DotJ had one little breakaway rifle that fired a single bullet. Bruce Willis in The Jackal used gigantic, remote control Gatling guns firing thousands and thousands of shells. Also it had bigger stars. Clearly that's better. To say otherwise is to suggest that Hollywood has no friggin' idea what it's doing, which is clearly nonsensical.

    Oh, also, that recent Killer Elite remake looked awesome too.

  4. Ken, just a couple of corrections before my agents drug you and take you to the Furious D Cinematic Re-Education Camp & Discount Lobotomy Center.

    Actually, it's not a remake of Sam Peckinpah's Killer Elite, but an adaptation of a novel called The Feather Men, it's just a rehashed title.

    As for the tendency of hurling tons of ammo in every action scene I think John Milius said it best in the audio commentary for Magnum Force. He said something to effect of: "I miss revolvers in action movies, they meant that every shot had to count for something."

  5. LOL

    I swear, D & Ken need to do some kind of discussion podcast. (with maybe Sandy hosting - whatever those guys do)

    I'm telling ya, blip/podcasts and apps - that's where the money is nowadays.

    (speaking of which... what's the betting spread on "Angry Birds: the Movie"?)

  6. Considering how many 'remakes' now have next to nothing to do with the original, that might be a distinction sans a difference.

    I remember when the Shaft update came out, raving afterward to anyone who would listen that no one in the film even used even a rocket launcher, which sadly in today's movies would probably be considered a light side arm. Sadly, it did not kick off a trend towards smaller, more intimate action. (Or even a second movie; not sure why.)

  7. Wait, I thought it had a sequel. "Shaft on a Plane" or something.