By Matt Brunson
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3
DIRECTED BY Tony Scott
STARS Denzel Washington, John Travolta
One of the many delights tied to the 1974 drama The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is that it's a New York picture down to its Big Apple core. Between a principal cast comprised almost exclusively by NYC natives (apparently, birth certificates were required at the auditions), screenwriter Peter Stone capturing the colorful colloquialism without lapsing into parody, and director Joseph Sargent never downplaying the grit and grime that defined the city during its most notorious decade, this film-buff favorite benefits as much from its pungency as from its nifty plot in which four men hijack a subway car and holds its passengers for ransom.
Placing the new version, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, next to its predecessor (both were adapted from John Godey's best-selling novel) makes the current model seem about as interesting as a tarnished doorknob, but rather than belabor the point, just rent the original and thank me later. As for those venturing forth to catch this update, be prepared for a moderately agreeable thriller that unfortunately flames out with at least a full half-hour to go.
Here, the four criminals are led by the tattooed, mustachioed Ryder (John Travolta, looking ridiculous but still exuding a small modicum of menace), who promises to start blowing away hostages unless $10 million is delivered into his hands in exactly one hour. Trapped in his sinister scenario is Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, typically dependable but not half as much fun as the original's Walter Matthau), the dispatcher who reluctantly serves as the intermediary between Ryder and the city (repped by James Gandolfini's surly mayor).
Few directors are as impersonal as Tony Scott (Domino, Days of Thunder), and he exhibits this detachment once again with a picture that's more interested in style than substance even the city of New York, the true principal player in this tale, fails to come to life, meaning this film might as well have been set in Chicago or London or any other metropolis with a sprawling subway system. Still, for a good while, Scott and his team make this Pelham a watchable affair, thanks to a capable (if often wasted) cast and several tense exchanges orchestrated by scripter Brian Helgeland. But once the action moves away from that isolated subway car, Scott and Helgeland pump up the volume in an attempt to give audiences the payoff the filmmakers think they expect. It's a monumental mistake: Whereas the original Pelham brilliantly uses a simple Matthau close-up to wrap up the story in sly, subtle fashion, this one piles on all manner of ludicrous developments, including (but not limited to) a topside gun battle and an unveiling of Ryder's master plan. By the time we get to a groaner of a showdown between the two stars, it's obvious that this vehicle jumped the tracks a while back.