Denzel Washington and John Travolta do their best to ratchet up the suspense in this watchable yet implausible remake of the 1974 thriller surrounding the hijacking of a New York City commuter train.
With its title "simplified", The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has Tony Scott orchestrating it all with his overpowering, hyperkinetic style. Washington is the mild-mannered, implacably stolid former supervisor Walter Garber demoted to dispatcher back under Scott's guidance since Deja Vu and Man on Fire.
The taut plotting from Brian Helgeland after an initial slick time-lapse opening realizes the same premise from the less noisy, more realistic antecedent directed by Joseph Sargent and starring a shaggy Walter Matthau and cold-hearted Robert Shaw.
Garber's routine is shattered by the perfectly choreographed hijacking of the titular train, led by the thuggish, tatooed Ryder (Travolta, perhaps carving his character out of baddie roles in films like Broken Arrow and Face/Off). Ryder's ex-con, unlike Shaw's ex-mercenary starts to realize his scheme of utilizing the sophisticated subway system for revenge and ransom. Now the asking price is $10 million/hour instead of $1million after which if the demands aren't met a hostage will be killed at one-minute intervals.
The fun of a movie which shows how much a city has changed from being rather well-worn and dilapidated 35 years ago now with a transit center almost as sophisticated as Kennedy Space Center is the escalating battle of wits between Garber and Ryder. Washington and Travolta use more of their charisma than really act out the parts as the tweaking of their demeanors proves invaluable. Their interplay over the communications system takes center stage as the rest of the city is unable to handle the situation.
John Turturro (Transformers) and James Gandolfini (finding life after "The Sopranos") offer the most noteworthy support as a hostage negotiator passed over by Ryder for Garber and the sardonic, philandering ineffectual mayor. Gandolfini probably could have fit in quite well in the original where the mayor was rather sick with the flu and relied on his staff.
But, Scott's penchant for unsuppressed excess begins to take hold as the more nuanced Garber begins to channel his inner action hero. He stages several key action sequences that wildly propel the film through some fudging of Big Apple locations as the ransom has to be moved by the authorities. As the leads have less discourse and finally appear face-to-face, Pelham 1 2 3 takes a ride in a less momentus direction as the clash of control and uncontrol dispatch coincidence and CGI off the tracks with the kind of technical precision just to get things right.
Many will find this thriller to be ideal contemporary entertainment with broad appeal based on the stars who play their roles with conviction as the action and suspense swirls around them. The filmmakers have curiously nursed the material around violence and audience sensitivity for the desired audio/visual quotient. While not as gripping as Scott and Washington back in their Crimson Tide days nor as cartoonish as Travolta's dapper malevolent Swordfish, this sonorous digital reworking of a minor classic will leave many spellbound at least until it gets out of the tunnels below the busy city streets.