Changing tracks with the times

2009-09-28 00:00

DIRECTOR Tony Scott was the epitome of the high concept directors in the eighties. Remember Top Gun, which resulted in the booming sales of Ray-ban sunglasses and increased recruitment for the American military? His films embodied the high gloss, sexy marketing of American popular culture. In fact, the Scotts (his brother is Ridley of Blade Runner fame) with backgrounds in advertising, were responsible for much of the revisioning of the visual styles that pervade mainstream cinema today. The question becomes though, how does time and maturity now inflect his approach to storytelling?

The Taking of Pelham 123 (a remake of a ’70s classic) plays out on the surface as a hostage drama-cum-heist movie set on a train, but the key themes revolve around moral ambiguity. This is now becoming a familiar refrain, even within straightforward American genres where the pure archetypes of the hero and the shadow have been blurred in a global society of porous boundaries. In Pelham 123, Ryder (John Travolta), a devilish ex-con, takes over the Hades of the New York underground metro and proceeds to battle for the soul of Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a reluctant hostage negotiator. Often bathed in red or ice blue light and captured in the stuttering and fragmented cinematography made popular by Scott, Ryder embodies our frustration with the hypocrisy of our world.

His inner desire is to break Garber, a decent man who may or may not have been tempted to smooth a deal by taking a bribe. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

Scott has indeed shifted his position in his approach to his stories and herein might lie the frustration of some audience members expecting the plug and play of a familiar genre. The pacing, as always for a Scott film, is intense, but there is no explosive third act. In fact Scott is willing to use deus ex machina, simply explained as the hand of God or fate, to resolve plot points. This is not about twists and turns and intricacy, this is simply a battle between two men caught in a morally ambiguous world. Sitting uneasily in its genre, it’s still an interesting film that resonates with our times.***

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