Aug 4, 2009

Review Post 37: The Taking of Pelham 123 / Rumba

DIR: Tony Scott
CAST: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro,
James Gandolfini, Luis Guzman

Another week, another remake.  This is a new version of a 1974 film by Joseph Sargent. The central story is, apparently, much the same, but updated for a credit-crunched 2009.  Ryder (Travolta) and his gang (including Guzman) hijack a New York subway car and demand a $10 million ransom for their 19 hostages.  On contacting the rail control centre Ryder speaks to Walter Garber (Washington) and the two men become engaged in a game of cat and mouse when Ryder insists that Garber deliver the money himself.

The simplest way to review this film would be to find a .gif of someone shrugging, and just leave it at that, because that’s exactly how The Taking of Pelham 123 left me feeling.  I was perfectly entertained for a couple of hours, my attention never wavered and for most of the time I enjoyed watching this movie, but as soon as I stood up it was all but gone from my mind.  It meant absolutely nothing to me, left no lasting impression at all, and floated away on the breeze like so much ephemera.

It isn’t that The Taking of Pelham 123 is badly made.  It is executed with exactly the unfussy competence that you’d expect of a director who has been working and at a high level of success for over 20 years.  Since Enemy of the State Tony Scott has had a very particular aesthetic - cut heavy, full of different kinds of stock, unconventional angle choices and an ever-increasing barrage of imagery.  This style overwhelmed Domino, and he’s pulled back from it a bit here.  That’s not to say that this is some visually sedate chamber piece (which, actually, might suit the material better) just that Scott has reined in his worst excesses, making this feel more like a film rather than Domino’s bad acid trip aesthetic.

Because this is a big, expensive film, it has to be a star vehicle and you couldn’t ask for two more diametrically opposed star performances than those on display here.  Denzel Washington added quite a bit of weight to his usually trim frame to play Garber and he gives a deeply serious, committed performance, giving a real sense of Graber as a man, and as a deeply flawed hero.  Against this subdued, method driven display, there is John Travolta. Travolta plays Ryder as a panto villain. Travolta can do this brilliantly - see John Woo’s much underrated Broken Arrow for a masterclass in camp villainy - but here he seems rather disengaged, despite the enthusiastic bellowing of MOTHERFUCKER that punctuates almost his every utterance.

It is, perhaps, not entirely fair to blame Travolta for the shallowness of Ryder, because Brian Helgeland’s surprisingly shoddy screenplay gives him little to hang on to.  It brings in a backstory for Ryder, but only in the most perfunctory ‘look, we’re tying this movie in to contemporary news events, aren’t we clever’ sort of way. The rest of the characterization is extremely lazy, only John Turturro and James Gandolfini (as, respectively, a hostage negotiator and the Mayor) get more than a couple of lines and, great actors though they both are, they are never asked to play more than one note.  Shamefully the always excellent Luis Guzman has even less to do, his major contribution to the story being as an expositional tool.

The story progresses much as you’d expect it to, but it does so with some skill and a reasonable level of excitement, what’s missing is a real reason to care, or an action sequence high octane enough to really get the blood pumping.  It’s these twin issues that keep The Taking of Pelham 123 from being on the level of a Die Hard, or a Speed, but if you’re not looking to think for a couple of hours then there are definitely worse things out there than this stunningly average actioner.

DIR: Dominque Abel / Fiona Gordon / Bruno Romy
CAST: Dominque Abel, Fiona Gordon

For a little while now I’ve been complaining about comedy; about how I’ve found it to be too reliant on gross out, on cruelty and sometimes on bigotry and offensiveness of various stripes. Here’s the antidote to that.

Rumba is just 77 minutes long, and yet I laughed more, longer and harder during it than I had in the many hours of comedy cinema I’ve seen during 2009 combined.  It couldn’t be simpler; married schoolteachers Dom and Fiona (writer/directors Abel and Gordon) spend their spare time winning Latin dance competitions until, one night, they have car crash in which Dom loses his memory and Fiona loses her leg.  The way the two cope with this new situation is rendered in bold primary colours, which, in combination with the dexterous slapstick on display, make Rumba play like a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.

Rumba’s jokes couldn’t be accused of being groundbreaking or new (Dom and Fiona sit round a campfire singing, guess what happens to Fiona’s wooden leg) but they are executed so beautifully that that doesn’t matter.  Abel and Gordon show off great timing and dexterity in the unusually choreographed dance sequences, and they bring those skills to the almost entirely physical comedy sequences.  The camera is most often still, and far enough back to show us the performers full bodies allowing Abel and Gordon to let their physical performances tell the film’s story as well as providing the jokes.  There is such simplicity to Rumba that jokes that would feel corny in another movie here acquire a childlike charm, a feeling that permeates the movie, especially in Dominique Abel’s wonderfully vacant performance as the amnesiac Dom.

The bold colours and straight on, often static, camera angles give Rumba a very particular visual identity.  Simple, but not because of any ineptitude on the filmmakers parts, Rumba is so straightforward because there is just no need for it to be more complex.  More cutting wouldn’t add to the comedy or the story, so a lot of scenes play in single shots.  Close ups aren’t particularly good for showing action, so most scenes are in medium to long shot.  The only really show off moment is one when Dom and Fiona’s shadows have a dance sequence of their own, while their owners sit despondent about their disabilities and, again, this sequence only uses technology in a way that is necessary to advance the film.

I loved Rumba.  It is a completely innocent film, one that I would recommend for the entire family.  Even if you don’t like subtitles you should see this, because there are so few words in it that it could almost be silent (and would be almost as effective if it were).  The audience I saw Rumba with was small, but I haven’t felt as much warmth from a crowd toward a film in a long time, nor have I laughed so heartily for a while.  Go and see Rumba, don’t make me post it as a Why haven’t you seen…?

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