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Issue 21,  September 7, 2009     —      Wider Screenings, Taking Charge of One's Destiny

In this issue:   FEATURE: Dr John F. Demartini, Read and Write Your Goals   Susan Payton, Making Sense of Marketing   Guy Finley, New Freedom from Self-Defeating Behavior   Joseph O'Connor, Self-Appreciation   Lorraine Roe, Your Innate Abilities   Ton Pascal / Sharon Elaine, Affirmations   Wider Screenings, Taking Charge of One's Destiny   Events   Reviews   Earlier issues   Submit Article   No Limits TODAY

                                                        with Robert Cettl www.widerscreenings.com



Taking Charge of One's Destiny:
a 1-2-3

Four men get on a subway train.  One enters the driver’s cabin and puts a gun to the motorman’s head.  The train is no longer under central control; the train is renegade; the train has been taken.  The Taking of Pelham 123 starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington is a remake of a mid-1970s thriller starring Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau.  In it a gang of armed men (headed by John Travolta in the new version, Robert Shaw in the old) hijack a subway train, Pelham 123.  They hold the passengers hostage and demand a ransom of $10 million, negotiating with metro train-traffic controller Denzel Washington.  The city of New York has one hour to deliver the money or Travolta will begin killing passengers, one for every minute that the money is late.  The clock is ticking.

“You have fifty-seven minutes left.  Check me.”

Washington is under investigation for bribery allegations.  He is about to be sent home and his dialogue with hood Travolta taken over by a hostage negotiator (John Turturro) but Travolta will have none of this and demands that Washington return.  As the New York mayor (Soprano’s James Gandolfini) arranges to have the money delivered, Washington and Travolta talk, Washington under instructions to distract him in an effort to prolong the deadline.  Travolta wants to know the truth about the bribery allegation.  He points a gun to an innocent man’s head and threatens to pull the trigger unless Washington tell the truth about the bribe – “did you take it?”

The remake of Taking of Pelham 123 is directed by veteran Tony Scott.  Brother of Ridley (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies) Scott, Tony first came to prominence in American film when he arrived from England and began work with the team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer on the hit Tom Cruise film Top Gun.  Since then Scott carved out a career with Simpson-Bruckheimer that saw him elevated to the A-list of Hollywood directors, working with Quentin (Inglourious Basterds) Tarantino on True Romance, Robert DeNiro on The Fan and Kevin Costner on Revenge.  With his brother Ridley, Tony runs Scott-Free, an advertising production house the duo finance when not making some of the most successful Hollywood action-thrillers, of which The Taking of Pelham 123 is the latest.

Although the plot details between the original and the remake remain the same, there are some significant differences.  In the original, the criminals all used aliases based on colours – Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, etc.  Post-modernist’s wunderkind director Quentin Tarantino admired this device so much that he appropriated for his own debut film Reservoir Dogs.  In the remake, the characters have names – Travolta uses the name “Ryder”, his real identity posing a puzzle to the mayor’s investigating team who attempt to track him down via certain comments he makes which suggest both Wall Street as well as prison experience.  As Washington and Travolta talk, Travolta begins to confide in him: the ever alert Washington picks up on the details and pieces together a portrait of Travolta that differs significantly from that of the former mercenary Robert Shaw in the original. 

The first significant detail comes in a seemingly throwaway remark.  Travolta, occupying the tiny motorman’s cabin to talk on the radio, remarks that the place is so small that is reminds him of a Confessional.  Washington, cluey, determines that Travolta is a Catholic (or at the very least a lapsed one) and asks whether Travolta believes there is any good in him left.  Travolta’s answer is swift and decisive: to kill or not to kill, that is the question.  Both Travolta and Washington know what it is like to make moral compromises and both face what they vaguely hint about in their discussions – judgment and retribution for their actions.  In their exchanges it becomes clear that Travolta has been driven to the edge of madness and despair by the contradiction between his former Catholic beliefs and his self-actualization as a ruthless hijacker and killer.  For a moment contemplating his actions, the killer stops to pray: his conclusion – God sanctions his actions, including murder.  And he has a new demand – Washington is to bring him the ransom money personally, he wants to meet the man at the other end of the phone. 

Washington has a choice – he is under no legal compunction to put his life in such danger but maybe, just maybe, by confronting Travolta he can reconcile his own religious beliefs with his risky, self-sacrificial actions: maybe, just maybe, he can redeem himself.  But in the resolution of their theist dialogue, Washington finds a new, potent role – judge, jury and potential executioner.  In their conflict and in the added dimension of Catholic faith hanging over this remake, The Taking of Pelham 123 emerges as a modern War on Terror parable of self-assertion, defiance and ethical responsibility for the individual actions needed for a self-actualization in opposition to one’s own inculcated religious beliefs. 

Travolta’s ruthless madness is thus the battling of the individual mind as it wrestles with the imperative to dismiss religious certainty, a self-assertive decision which brings with it the horrible reality of moral relativism, where people are expendable commodities in the pursuit of the American Dream: the dream of wealth and independence that underlies American culture implies a morally relative value system which is in opposition to traditional religious (in this case Catholic) values.  In that, the remake of Taking of Pelham 123 takes a riveting caper movie plot and superimposes onto it a morality tale involving the roles of “fate” and “redemption” in the self-actualization of the professional American male forced to accept the necessity of moral compromise in order to survive in contemporary America.

In that, Travolta’s character takes on an added dimension.  When he sets his plan in motion, he remarks to himself that “the plane has begun its descent.”  His actions in hijacking the subway train immediately mark him as a terrorist in the public eye – as every action involving hijacking and ransom is immediately considered in a post 9/11 climate a terrorist action.  But Travolta is not a terrorist: he is a professional criminal who understands the effect of terrorist actions on the stock market and is using his criminal enterprise and the appearance of a terrorist action to exploit that market and profit from the stock shake-up following a terrorist action.  Though labelled a terrorist by the knee-jerk American media, he is a criminal.

The distinction between terrorist and criminal is something that has long been assessed in US film.  Pre 9/11, terrorism and criminality were allied and there was little distinction between them – criminals used the means of terrorism to profit and in this way terrorism was considered in American cinema as not an ideological means of warfare but a mere criminal enterprise – the epitome of this type of film was Die Hard where thieves enact a terrorist situation in order to steal money.  Such a framework denied the ideological and sociological factors which underlay terrorism and sought to consider it as a crime indistinguishable from other criminal actions.  The events of 9/11 and the collapse of the World Trade Center in a terrorist action changed this: after a gap of a few years where there were no terrorist films at all, there was a wave of terrorist films from 2007-2009 which sought to redefine the terrorist as distinct and distinguishable from the criminal – terrorism and crime were separate enterprises.

In this, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 is significant for it seeks to re-establish the pre 9/11 trend which allied criminality and terrorism.  In that, it alludes to such pre 9/11 terrorist “classics” as Die Hard but infiltrates it with a theme almost unique to the post 9/11 terrorist cinema wave – the role of religious morality in terrorist actions.  Thus, director Tony Scott takes the material of the original Pelham thriller and grafts onto it the concerns of the post 9/11 terrorist movie in order to create a uniquely post 9/11 caper movie / thriller, alluding to the legacy of the cinema of terrorism both pre and post 9/11.  The result is an intriguing thematic amalgam presented with Scott’s customary highly-polished visual aplomb.  Fast, thoughtful and tense, The Taking of Pelham 123 is a worthy remake although in trying to quicken up the fast-paced original and concentrating on Travolta/Washington it dissipates the nervy tension the original film managed in its subway-train scenes.

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