There are two going theories about Tony Scott: the first is that he’s the world’s most offensive hack action director, polluting the cinema with shallow flash and dismal MTV tendencies only to produce generic action drivel. The second view – held by approximately nine of us, warmed at night only by the virtue of being right – is that Scott has evolved into a classical auteur, a director who uses the dominant studio visual language of his age to express his artistry.
In the latter view, two of his last three films (Man on Fire, Domino, Déjà Vu) are unfairly condemned acts of genius (although the nine of us never agree which two). This theory mainly leads to Internet message board clashes, usually ending in intense disagreements over whether the brilliantly anarchic Domino is a misunderstood masterpiece or completely unwatchable.
So take the police motorcade from Scott’s re-make of the seventies Walter Matthau thriller The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. A police car and eight motorbikes hustle through traffic as they carry millions of dollars in ransom money. Scott unleashes a series of unfortunate collisions upon these dutiful public servants. Is he engaging in action scene overkill? Or is he satirizing the movie motorcade that never seems to have trouble zipping through traffic? Or is he toying with time and chance, as he seems to be doing at other points in the film?
I could be wrong, but I don’t expect this film to settle the enigma of Tony Scott. While it toys with some of the themes he has been exploring in recent films – time, chance, cultural dystrophy, technologically fractured perspectives – it seems much more straightforward than his most recent work. It doesn’t share the intensity of Man On Fire or Domino. It’s even drowsy at times, although it’s quite involving at others. Worst of all, Luis Guzman never takes off his hat and shades to reveal his beautiful face.
It does have Scott’s muse, Denzel Washington, in an affecting square-off with super-baddie John Travolta, who has hijacked a subway train and stranded it in the middle of a dark tunnel, setting off an old-fashioned New York hostage crisis. Washington plays Walter Garber, a train dispatcher who becomes the go-between for Ryder and the police. Travolta’s Ryder wants $10 million in an hour or he starts shooting the hostages one by one.
Perhaps the best way to look at the film isn’t through its 1974 predecessor but through Scott’s Man on Fire, also written by Brian Helgeland. In that film, Mexico City is a patina of Catholic order stretched over a boiling cauldron of lethal, frolicking Bachnaelian mischief. Yet even that disorder has an effective but repugnant rational system buried underneath it. Scott and Helgeland have embodied that dynamic entirely into this villain. Ruling the underworld, Travolta’s fallen angel keeps a cross stud in his ear, screams like a madman, but ultimately has carved out his own ingenious system toward personal enrichment.
On the other side, like Mexico City, the façade of order in the Big Apple is retreating. Rather than being a rock of leadership in a crisis, the lame-duck mayor performs like a senior ditching class in his last semester. Garber, a Catholic himself, has worked his way up from a train driver to the executive suite. Now he’s falling back to earth in a bribery scandal. He could become a hero not by inherent virtue but luck of the draw.
Man on Fire is also a film about fractured perspectives and subjectivity. Pelham likewise. Everyone can see a bit of the picture, but no one sees the whole. The villains are in total command in their own capsule but look out upon only lurking darkness. Snipers see their targets but not the hostages. Garber is involved via computers and technology, but cannot see the real thing. For Scott, cameras and computer screens function toward reality in ways like mirrors have functioned toward characters in classical cinema – as indicators of division. The technology allows us to commune around an event but also forces us into a distorted fragments of its reality. It lets us see the elephant but only feel the tail.
Despite my admiration of its elements and a generally favorable opinion, Pelham doesn’t quite measures up to Scott’s best recent work. Man on Fire is a modern version of The Searchers. Déjà Vu, some think, is a technological update on Vertigo. Domino is …. well, Domino is pretty much its own indescribable thing. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is ultimately an update of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a sturdy New York thriller of its time, but not quite a classic. But it at least lets me continue to wear my “Tony’s the auteur, Ridley’s the hack.” T-shirt with pride.