The Taking of Pelham 123, Tony Scott, 106 mins, (15)
Land of the Lost, Brad Silberling, 101 mins, (12A)
G-Force (3D), Disney 88 mins, (PG)
Dizzying camerawork can't keep a dud story on track
Sunday 02 August 2009
Tony Scott's movie-making has got more and more berserk over the years, to the point where he can no longer film a man making a phone call without whirling the camera around his head, zooming in, slipping out of focus, throwing in some slow-motion, and then freeze-framing and slapping a caption on screen.
If you don't believe me, see The Taking of Pelham 123, a brainless remake of the classic 1974 thriller. Fundamentally, it's the story of two men on the phone, and Scott never stops using all of the tricks mentioned above.
The two men are Denzel Washington and John Travolta. In the Walter Matthau role, Washington plays a New York subway dispatcher who's on duty when Travolta, in Robert Shaw's role, radios him to announce that he has hijacked a train, and that he'll start shooting the passengers if he isn't handed $10m within an hour. That sounds like an exciting premise at first, but what it means is that absolutely nothing's going to happen until that hour has elapsed. No wonder Scott directs as if he's testing the functions of a video camera he's just bought.
Some underused supporting actors are seen rushing around in the background (time for a long talk with your agents, John Turturro and Luis Guzman), but the core of the film is a conversation during which nothing memorable is said, next to nothing is revealed about the speakers, and the balance of power remains resolutely unshifted. The highlight of the chit-chat is an anecdote Travolta tells about a husky defecating in his face. Seriously.
To make matters worse, Washington starred in a remarkably similar but far superior New York hostage-negotiator thriller, Inside Man, just three years ago. As for Travolta, it's impossible to accept him as a ruthless criminal genius, even with his tattooed neck, his Village People moustache and his truly embarrassing goggle-eyed loon performance. Like his director, he's trying too hard, and not getting anywhere.
Land of the Lost was an American children's TV series from the mid-1970s that had a park ranger and his two children being zapped into a parallel universe of dinosaurs, aliens, and whatever other monsters could be rustled up on a $10 budget. I doubt many people in America remember it, let alone in Britain, but from that outline alone you can see how it could be revived as a blockbuster for a family audience. You can also see, I suppose, how it could be aimed at teenage viewers who want something lewder and cruder. But aiming at both audiences at once proves to be a terrible idea.
The perfunctory storyline and ropey special effects would be acceptable only to small children. Most of the time, Land of the Lost doesn't look like a film, or even a theme park ride based on a film: it looks like a computer mock-up of a theme park ride based on a film. And yet it makes a point of dismaying younger viewers (or, more accurately, younger viewers' parents) by sticking in some swearing, a protracted drug trip sequence, and an ape man who keeps groping Anna Friel's chest. It also has Will Ferrell doing exactly the same bumptious, boorish characterisation he does in every film, alongside Danny McBride, who seems to be doing a Will Ferrell impression (both pictured left). One doughy, curly-haired, loud-mouthed man-toddler may be considered unfortunate, but two ... the phrase "lost the plot" springs to mind.
All of which leads me to the chilling conclusion that this week's best release is G-Force, a live-action Disney adventure featuring a team of highly trained secret-agent guinea pigs. It isn't hugely funny or wise (we get the standard array of pop-culture references instead of jokes, and the usual "believe in yourself" message), but it's a fast, precision-engineered rollercoaster that doesn't waste a moment, and which makes relentless use of its 3D potential by bombarding us with fireworks, water and rodents at every possible opportunity. After Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G-Force is the third film this summer to feature giant marauding robots. The sad thing is that it's the most intelligent and engaging of the three.
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