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Ten Word or Less Review: Not too shabby remake of not too shabby original.

By all accounts the remake of “The Taking of Pehlam 123” should be an easily dismissed and trivial thing.  It’s helmed by Tony Scott, whose films often range from annoying to terrible.  It features John Travolta as yet another scenery chewing bad guy going gleefully over the top in pursuit of ransom.  Opposite him is ever stalwart Denzel Washington, an actor who despite his years of critical worship and box office clout often attaches himself to very marginal pictures.  It gets a big look of skepticism for being a remake by default and a second ugly glare for being a remake of a solid movie that was done right 25 years ago.  The world should never forget the Matthau.  So with no real point to exist and no one of excitement involved in its unnecessary making, how the Hell did this movie turn out as well as it did?

A big part of the credit goes to screenwriter Brian Helgeland.  While sticking fairly close to the original story’s structure, he’s given intelligence and believability to the characters and avoids clichés when he can.  While Travolta and Washington can bring a certain dependability with them, if the screenplay fails, they typically fail too.  His screenplay is lean and on target, not wasting time on subplots and trivialities anyone would care about.  He includes a few contrivances here and there but often earns them with proper build up.  Nothing in this movie feels like a cheat or cheap way out.

Travolta’s umpteenth manic nutcase is held together by two things.  First, his psychopath backs up his words.  When hard situations develop that require nasty actions on his part, the film doesn’t dodge or wimp out in an attempt to make us like him a little bit longer.  It takes the gritty way through things.  The second, and this isn’t a spoiler, we know in good time that a lot of his insane antics are a ruse.  His character is obviously a deadly and damaged man, but we also know there is more than just the banality of insanity driving him.  He’s not just the average, over the top Travolta bad guy, he’s a cold psychopath pretending to be the over the top Travolta bad guy.  Making good counter balance to Travolta’s histrionics is Washington’s believable everyman.  His character looks and speaks less like someone in a movie and more like someone who works for the New York City transit system.  He stays low key through and through.  The movie avoids turning him into an action hero that would destroy his credibility as a character.  Washington may not have to stretch much for parts like this, but he’s good at them none the less.

“Pehlam” also makes the wise decision to not idiot up its supporting characters.  A permanent staple of pictures like this are parts like ‘the arrogant detective’ or ‘the bumbling mayor.’  People in positions of authority are often used as moronic devices so the protagonist has someone to defy, be smarter than and possibly punch in the face when the story requires one last beat to end on.  John Turturro (the detective) and James Gandolfini (the mayor) are strong names to waste on parts like that, so “Pehlem” wises up and writes better angles for them to play.  Both characters get a sense of pragmatic believability and insight, mercifully divorced from the usually moronic arcs these characters are forced to perform.

Not gumming up the works behind the camera is the often and rightly maligned Tony Scott.  Scott’s movies are often boring exercises in flashy bullshit.  While he started out as a helmsman for vacuous Tom Cruise movies (Top Gun, Days of Thunder), he gradually developed an impatient and irritating style that some damn fool decided to admire, others soon followed this lead.  Scott works his movies up into a frenzy of useless editing chaos, assaulting the viewer with so many cuts and film tricks that everything falls into a smoldering lump on the theater floor.  He’s less about letting a scene play out and more about drawing a twitchy, nervous attention to himself.  Here he steps back his usual editorial assaults and delivers something a little more visually digestible.  His approach here invokes more of “Crimson Tide” and less of “Domino.”  He keeps the action moving forward at a good, but not impatient clip, always making sure the viewer catches what their supposed to.  While he can’t completely control himself at all times, irksome touches still pop up, Scott seems to know he has pros in front of the camera with an all around functioning chemistry and that too much toying will mess it up.  His bag of psychotic tricks and stupid gimmicks stays mostly zipped shut.  He also makes the wise decision to use a lot of real New York locations.  Genuine New York scenery can practically be a free supporting character when films use it to their advantage as Scott does here.

Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy can’t be argued.  It’s a system obsessed with established properties and familiar titles.  Creativity in movies seems as shunned and loathed as teaching evolution in a Kansas elementary school.  But occasionally, despite all evidence to the contrary, one of these misguided ventures turns out favorable.  “The Taking of Pehlam 123”, while not perfect, is proof that not every remake has to be cynical and pointless.  When brought to life with some craft and intelligence, a remake of something that was a good thing can be a good thing a second time around.

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