This warmed-over version of the 1970s subway-hijack thriller is typical Tony Scott bombast.
It all comes down to attitude.
At first glance, Joseph Sargent’s 1974 The Taking of Pelham One Two Three may look like a slightly pokey old thriller about a subway hijacking. But the delightfully curmudgeonly chestnut has attained a rabid cult following over the years, not for any great shakes in the suspense department, but because the movie so effortlessly embodies the vibe of a particular time and place. It’s a loving portrait of that bankrupt, shithole New York City of the ’70s and its indomitable, world-weary inhabitants. The joy of the film is watching the magnificently grizzled mugs of great character actors (Walter Matthau, Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller) as they face the central hostage drama with a shrug—just another goddamned hassle in a city that’s lousy with them.
As expected, Tony Scott’s hyperkinetic, entirely unnecessary revamp attempts to update Pelham by cranking the volume and inflating the Noo Yawk attitude to a cartoonish level of macho posturing. The opening conversation, a slight bit of banter between Denzel Washington’s paunchy subway dispatcher Walter Garber and a co-worker, contains what must be at least 15 utterances of the word “fuck.” See, these guys are from the big, bad city, so they say the f-word a whole fuckin’ lot.
Washington’s Garber is unlucky enough to be at the desk when a ludicrously outfitted, erratically accented John Travolta takes the title train captive, demanding $10 million within the hour or he’ll start offing hostages. Wearing jailhouse tattoos and silly facial hair, Travolta goes on a scenery-chewing rampage most notable for its bizarre inconsistency. There are stray moments in the performance that threaten to become interesting, but the actor is so busy flailing about all over the place that you can’t quite get a bead on the character. It’s also really hard not to laugh every time Travolta dips into ghetto slang and starts calling people “mothafucka.”
Brian Helgeland’s script departs pretty wildly from the original, with Washington attempting to stall for time as Travolta delivers one crazed monologue after another, shooting people in the face whenever things start to get boring. The city is predictably thrown into chaos, which is signified here by a lot of the supporting cast puffing out their chests and screaming obscenities in each other’s faces. Scott loves him some ADD aggression, staging the simplest dialogue scenes with overcranked, swirling dolly-shots, rapid-fire edits and annoying freeze-frames.
The cops are trying to transport Travolta’s $10 million in ransom cash through a tangle of rush-hour traffic, giving Scott the opportunity to punctuate these already overwrought scenes with elaborate car crashes. Only James Gandolfini’s brilliantly exasperated mayor has the common sense to ask, “Why didn’t they just take a fucking helicopter?”
Gandolfini is extraordinary, by the way. The one performer here who wouldn’t be out of place in Sargent’s 1974 original, he’s playing a pissed-off politician counting the days until the end of his single term, disgraced by a sex scandal and a secret loathing of the Yankees. He was supposed to be reading children’s storybooks at an elementary school today, and the last thing he wants to deal with is some deranged nut-job shooting citizens on public transportation. (“I left my Rudy Giuliani suit at home,” he wheezes.) As any Sopranos fan will tell you, nobody gets aggravated better than James Gandolfini. The man speaks volumes just by rolling his eyes.
Washington does what he can as a Regular Joe discovering his inner action hero. But it’s hard not to shake the sense of déjà vu, as just a few years ago he was handling similar hostage negotiation duties in Spike Lee’s vastly superior Inside Man . Helgeland’s script gives him an ethically compromised past, clumsily stabbing at the casual corruption that Lee’s picture exuded so easily. Thinking back on that underrated movie’s seen-it-all New York swagger and dry wit, Scott’s pumped-up Pelham feels even less necessary. Inside Man was a much more fitting tribute. C
Running time: 106 minutes.
Also starring: John Turturro, Luis Guzmán and Victor Gojcaj, who Tony Scott discovered while looking for “real-life” criminals.
According to imdb.com: Ever since the release of the 1974 film, no No. 6 train has ever been scheduled to leave Pelham Bay Park at either 13:23 or 01:23.