MOVIE REVIEW- Subway sequel: Two big dogs play cat and mouse
There was no earthly need to remake The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, except to make the title more text-friendly by substituting digits; but if it had to be done for commercial reasons, at least director Tony Scott has done a good job.
It can be argued that New York City has changed enough in 35 years, especially after 9/11, that a thriller about a subway hijacking should be very different; but aside from updated technology, reduced racial tension, and some debate over whether "terrorists" are involved, the bare bones of the story are the same in Brian Helgeland's screenplay as they were in Peter Stone's original (both based on a novel by John Godey).
New Yorkers seem a little nicer now, which makes them less interesting, so Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) is writing with one hand tied behind his back. Not having Walter Matthau to deliver sardonic one-liners in the leading role ties the other, but the story still works to create 24-style real time suspense.
At two in the afternoon, four armed men board the Pelham 1 2 3 and force the motorman to stop between stations. The rear cars are uncoupled and their passengers released, leaving 19 hostages in the lead car with the hijackers.
Communication is quickly established between the two main characters. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is on the phone for the Pelham line at Rail Control Center, having been demoted to dispatcher while he's under investigation for allegedly taking a bribe.
"Ryder" (John Travolta), as he tells Garber he can call him, is the mastermind of the hijacking. He reveals considerable knowledge of financial matters as he establishes a rapport with Garber, in his own mind at least. His demands are simple: $10 million in cash delivered to him within an hour. If the money doesn't arrive on time Ryder will kill one hostage a minute until it does.
Garber does as good a job as anyone could– he's Denzel Washington, after all– of keeping Ryder engaged, although the villain takes an occasional break to show what he's capable of– he's John Travolta, after all, though he doesn't fall back on his charm as much as usual. Professional assistance arrives in the form of hostage negotiator Lt. Camonetti (John Turturro). Ryder takes a dislike to him, labeling him "Greaseball," as quickly as he took a liking to Garber.
Despite some seemingly profound dialogue ("We all owe God a life"), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall thriller.
Matthau's quips that made the 1974 version almost a comedy are missed. Helping somewhat to fill that gap is James Gandolfini as the lame-duck Mayor who can't wait to get out of politics– "I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home"– and is tabloid fodder for having been caught in an affair.
Luis Guzmán, who plays a member of Ryder's gang, seems to be in every movie to come out of Hollywood.
Both stars have done unnecessary remakes before. Washington starred in The Manchurian Candidate and The Preacher's Wife (the latter based on The Bishop's Wife) and Travolta in The Thin Red Line. Tony Scott remakes The Warriors next. Washington's first sequel will be Inside Man 2 while Travolta's embarrassed himself going for the gold in Be Cool, Staying Alive and the Look Who's Talking series.
Cinematography and editing combine to create an edgy, subway feel, and everyone in the cast does what's required of them. Scott knows how to make a popcorn movie that's just serious enough to keep you on the edge of your seat without leaving any aftertaste, unpleasant or otherwise.