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The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

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Posted: Friday, June 19, 2009 10:00 pm

The summer movie blues return this week, with ADD-afflicted "filmmaker" Tony Scott - who has done some decent work in the past but completely lost my faith with the one-two punch of "Domino" and "Déjˆ Vu" - once again demonstrating why he should no longer be allowed within 100 yards of a movie camera.

(Ridley was the chosen son, Tony. Deal with it and move on with your life.)

Now in theaters

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3"
** (out of four)
2009, Tony Scott, U.S., R

Next week I'll try my luck with "$9.99," if it's playing in the area - and I hope it is, because the trailer for "Year One" ain't looking so hot, and frankly I'd rather smash my hand repeatedly with a hammer for two hours than see even 10 minutes of the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds romcom "The Proposal."

This remake of the beloved '70s heist caper opens with a serene shot of the New York skyline. Within seconds, the image becomes darker, grainier, more chaotic, and immediately we're flung into rapid-fire jump-cut shots of four very scary-looking men boarding a subway car, presumably to hijack it.

Yes, this is a Tony Scott film, and that's immediately clear within the opening moments of this testosterone-fueled thriller that exhibits all the director's trademarks: disorienting editing techniques, images saturated in browns and yellows, action scenes lacking any sense of location or coherence - the works.

Thankfully, he has at least spared us his obsessive repeat shots, and that alone goes a long way in helping this film stand out as one of Scott's less overtly annoying efforts. Still, it would have been a better movie with someone else at the helm, and in fact "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" would have greatly benefited from several such fundamental "quick fixes."

This is especially true in the casting department. Denzel Washington fares OK as Walter Garber, a New York City transit worker who unwittingly becomes a negotiator in a hostage crisis involving 19 people aboard a hijacked subway car.

Washington is clearly phoning everything in at this point, but he's serviceable in a role that he could (and arguably does) play in his sleep.

Less fortunate is John Travolta as the criminal mastermind known only as Ryder. It's a ridiculous performance as one of the most poorly drawn villains I've seen in a long time, but more on that in a minute. There's a more fundamental problem here: John Travolta is not, never was and never will be intimidating in even the slightest degree.

He's gotten away with stuff like this in the past, with films like "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off," where he played absurdly over-the-top bad guys with just the right amount of intentional comic goofiness. Here, though, his character is supposed to be genuinely scary, so the humor is all unintentional. (I dare you not laugh hysterically any time Travolta angrily calls somebody a "mother --" in his patented high-pitched squeal. Go on, I dare you.)

Not that it matters, since the character is so poorly written that I can hardly believe he was created by Brian Helgeland, an Oscar winner for the 1997 pot boiler "L.A. Confidential." "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" sporadically attempts to be a thriller with a difference, a social statement that gets us thinking about more than just guns and explosions, and it attempts to do this by forming a working-man-vs.-the-system camaraderie between the characters of Ryder and Garber.

Had the film stuck with this, the natural chemistry between Travolta and Denzel might have been enough to save the film. But no. After spending almost an hour situating Ryder as a wronged working stiff (thus making his ostensibly heinous actions more understandable, perhaps even strangely justifiable), Helgeland completely reverses the character and turns him into a boring, rambling dime store sociopath with a death wish.

The movie is lean, with a handful of scenes that deliver a decent amount a suspense for a few brief moments, but nothing ever really sparks. The plot moves along to a shockingly anticlimactic conclusion (followed by the most laughably earnest freeze-fame fadeout I've ever seen in an action film - a huge step down from the legendary shot that closed the original film starring Walter Matthau), and when it's all over the viewer is simply left to wonder why the filmmakers thought they could get away with making such a incredibly pedestrian film and then trying to sell it as a pulse-pounding summer thriller. Talk about a caper gone wrong.

'True Blood'

It seems that "True Blood" fever has begun to sweep America, and I've no complaints. (No, not even about the crass but bold L.A. Times cover stunt.)

HBO has been pretty dry for a while, with no sweet, sweet "Sopranos" or "Wire" goodness to keep them competitive with the increasingly impressive Showtime original programming, but now they have a new flagship show in the form of Alan Ball's adaptation of author Charlaine Harris' popular Sookie Stackhouse vampire series.

DVD pick

"True Blood" Season 1
*** 1/2
2009, Alan Ball, U.S., Unrated

While it doesn't quite stack up against the very best of HBO's efforts, it is amongst the strongest dramatic series currently on television, and the only vampire-themed show that I've ever willingly watched for more than a couple episodes. It's also a nice, mature change of pace in a time when "Twilight" seems to have set a new standard in the genre.

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Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer star in "True Blood." (Courtesy photo)

"True Blood" (the title being a reference to the synthetic blood that the recently outed vampire community is supposed to drink instead of human blood) is especially provocative in the way it uses the vampire mythos to probe issues like race, religion and homosexuality, but it never gets bogged down in social commentary.

This is sexy, bloody, often brutal entertainment that never shies away from upping the ante in terms of sex and violence, and it's the trashiness coupled with the vampire romanticism that lends the show its unique appeal.

The cast is great as well, with Golden Globe winner Anna Paquin leading the pack as Sookie Stackhouse, a mind-reading waitress whose life takes a turn when she meets southern gentleman vampire Bill Compton (Paquin's real-life flame Stephen Moyer).

Ryan Kwanten is clearly the cast standout as Jason, Sookie's screw-up of a brother, but if there's one actor who might come out of this a star, it's Alexander Skarsgard (Stellan's son) as the ancient vampire Eric.

He's impressed me before in HBO's miniseries "Generation Kill," and if the second season gives his character some more screen time, this is one Swede who could start making his mark stateside.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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