One could forgive Tony Scott’s remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” for its departures from the acclaimed 1974 original (both were based on the novel by John Godey) if it succeeded on its own as a taut thriller. Unfortunately, Scott seems not to trust the cat-and-mouse maneuverings of transit authority dispatcher Denzel Washington and subway hijacker John Travolta to carry the film, instead sucking away the claustrophobic intensity with car chases and other superfluous frills.
If there’s anything to be said for the screenplay by Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential,” “Man on Fire”), it’s that nothing and no one is what it originally appears. We’re introduced to Washington’s Walter Garber as a nine-to-fiver at New York’s MTA while Travolta’s Ryder seems to be a garden-variety criminal attempting what appears to be a straightforward kidnapping, but we soon learn that there’s more going on than is immediately apparent.
Sadly, that script makes its share of dopey moves as well — rather than take advantage of the close quarters and ticking-clock situation (Ryder says he’ll kill a passenger a minute if the city doesn’t meet his deadline by delivering $10 million in one hour), “Pelham” cuts away to police cars and motorcycle cops rushing the money across Manhattan, complete with overhead map shots that feel recycled from the “Crank” movies.
As the city’s mayor, played by James Gandolfini, rightly asks, “Why didn’t we send a helicopter?” And why have one of the passengers stream the entire hostage incident over the internet (with a magically recharging laptop battery) if it’s not going to become a plot point?
The original film featured terrific performances by Walter Matthau as a transit cop and Robert Shaw as criminal mastermind “Mr. Blue” — the movie inspired Quentin Tarantino’s use of colorful pseudonyms in “Reservoir Dogs” — but their modern counterparts aren’t quite as memorable.
Washington, at least, plays it low-key and humble, a welcome switch from his recent grandstanding, but Travolta remains singularly unbelievable as a villain. In movies like this and “Swordfish” and, let’s not forget, “Battlefield Earth,” the actor strives for malice but generally can’t get much darker than playground-bully meanness.
Thankfully, there’s a terrific supporting cast of character actors, from scene-stealing Gandolfini (whose character can’t wait to retire so he can stop pretending to like the Yankees) and John Turturro (as an NYPD hostage negotiator) to John Benjamin Hickey, Tonye Patano (“Weeds”), Luis Guzmán and a criminally underutilized Aunjanue Ellis.
Ultimately, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” adds up to a few interesting ideas and performances that don’t really amount to a hill of tokens. Even with the flaws in Travolta’s performance, it would have been better for the film to revolve more around his battle of wits with Washington and less around the plot’s many sidetracks.
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