Want to know how a city works? Start by watching 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a primer in which subway hijackers test how long it'll take a million bucks to pass through Gotham's plumbing. Turns out an hour is just enough time to roust the hated mayor out of bed; convince him that $1 million is cheap for the hostages' sure votes; get the treasury on the horn; and gridlock traffic by wrecking the drop-off car. And yet, in the end, a web of interlocked dysfunction from Gracie Mansion to the Transit Authority defeats the crooks' well-oiled machine.
At the time, the movie didn't connect with audiences except, as legend has it, in cities with subways. But in the years after 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three took on new life—a parable of punch-clock New Yorkers' surly resilience in the face of aggression.
With this second remake of Pelham (the first was a late '90s TV rehash), director Tony Scott turns a presciently post-9/11 movie into an explicitly post-9/11 movie. Make that post-post-9/11: The chief bad guy only looks like a terrorist, when in fact he's an even scarier, more au courant foe—a commodities trader! But if self-conscious stabs at significance don't sound like as much fun as the original's unpretentious caper thrills, that's because they're not.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland. Based on the novel by John Godey. Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini and John Turturro. Opens Friday.
That's not to say this Pelham never makes it out of the station. If not for that dull TV version a decade ago, which packed all the excitement of buying tokens, it would be tempting to call the basic outline of John Godey's novel indestructible: Four gunmen seize a subway car and its passengers and demand a fortune in one hour, while transit official Walter Garber, stalling for time, plays head games with the gang's mastermind.
In the original, the transit rep was grouchy Walter Matthau. His part's been reconceived for Denzel Washington, whose Walter Garber is more of a turning worm, a disgraced official who's been busted back down to the rank and file. He's the poor bastard who picks up a call from the crime's ringleader, Ryder—John Travolta subbing for Robert Shaw's icy Mr. Blue—and becomes his negotiator and eventual cash mule.
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The crackling give-and-take between Travolta, a hair-triggered, showboating Joker, and the smartly low-key Washington gives the new Pelham most of its juice. No other actor makes such an art of modulating his performances from situation to situation than Washington. You can read his character's standing in any situation by Washington's gradations of subservience.
On paper, Pelham would appear a good fit for the erratic Scott, whose style has morphed with time and technology into a kind of cubist barrage of image fragments. Synch him up with a techno thriller like Enemy of the State or the recent Déjà Vu, and his ADD direction seems apt.
But Scott applies that technique indiscriminately. Here, Scott's camera acrobatics have so little to do with the events they're recording that they leave hiccups in the movie's momentum. At his most frenetic and least disciplined, Scott doesn't tell the story: He advertises it from shot to shot.
In the original Pelham, director Joseph Sargent's uncluttered direction played up the sweaty-collared confinement of the subway car and the transit office. Which marks, oh, the 50th time I've unfavorably compared the remake to the original—the lazy reviewer's default setting, to be sure. But Scott's redo comes up short in almost every regard against the '74 model. If it's somehow unfair to compare the two, why was The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 even remade?