Predictably ratcheted up a few notches from the original 1974 film and cloaked in contemporary sociological relevance, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is an efficiently reworked version of a tense, ticking-clock suspense story. More than anything a fascinating portrait of how much New York has changed in 35 years, the film delivers the goods in excitement and big-star charisma, with the contrasting low-key and cranked-up acting styles of Denzel Washington and John Travolta playing off one another nicely. Comparatively low-tech thriller looks to hijack solid-to-strong returns for Sony before the tentpoles take over most of the nation’s screens.
First adaptation of John Godey’s novel is a minor classic in the early-’70s school of gritty Gotham crime yarns. Directed by Joseph Sargent and written by Peter Stone, it pitted Walter Matthau’s sardonic subway dispatcher against Robert Shaw’s cold-blooded mercenary as the latter commandeered a subway train and promised to start killing one hostage per minute unless $1 million in cash was delivered within an hour.
The contrast between the old and new pictures is less interesting as a comparison of styles — with Tony Scott, you know what you’re going to get in terms of heavily worked images and blaring soundtrack — than as one of society. In the early ’70s, as reflected in “Pelham,” the city looked grungy to the point of dilapidation, verging on political meltdown (the portrait of a sickly mayor who just wants to hide in bed is jaw-dropping) and dominated ethnically by Jews and Italians.
This time around, the transit system’s central control HQ is as high-tech as a NASA command post, local authorities are tight knots of anxious professionalism and the population is a rainbow coalition come to fruition. Communication is also a whole lot better — even if there’s still no wireless service on the subway — and the casual racism and sexism of some of the characters in the original are mostly gone.
Eschewing inessentials, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland get right down to business. An armed gang of four, led by the thuggish-looking Ryder (Travolta), efficiently takes over the lead car of a downtown 6 train, shoots a plainclothes cop and, with 18 hostages cowering at gunpoint, gives the city 60 minutes to hand over — inflation well taken into account — $10 million.
Finding this crisis in his lap is dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington), who insists to Ryder that he’s “just a guy,” a cog in the city bureaucracy with no power to deal with a high-stakes hostage situation. But in between issuing blunt demands and threats, Ryder takes an apparent liking to the regular Joe, pressing him about his life and, in the process, revealing scraps of useful information about himself.
Helgeland’s script thus pushes into directions Stone’s did not, establishing personal links between the hijacker and his opposite number. But the film also is interested in a bigger picture; a dark episode in Garber’s career is pushed front and center, forcing a facile but still provoking contrast concerning degrees, gravity and justifiability of different types of criminality, from high to low, white-collar to blue-collar, municipal to private. Pressed any further, the thematic implications would become pretentious but, as is, the elaboration grafts a little meat onto generic characters.
With the minutes quickly counting down, Garber is briefly replaced at the microphone by a professional hostage negotiator (John Turturro); the mayor (James Gandolfini, very good) moans and groans while dashing about town; hundreds of cops are deployed; and, with another killing, Ryder makes it deadly clear he’s not kidding.
Compact story and high-pressure situation would seem to make this an all but fool-proof thriller concept, and Scott messes up only in his execution of a climactic stretch in which Ryder sends the subway car loose on a high-speed run toward Coney Island. By artificially jimmying the film speed, indulging in step-framing and his other visual tricks, the director in fact decreases the terrifying sense of speed that smart editing of real-time cinematography can provide.
Final act has been contrived to get Garber out of his antiseptic office and down into the subway tunnel, where he can morph into something resembling an action hero. Washington’s notably increased bulk makes it unlikely he could run as fast and far as he must here, but the actor’s time-tested skill at quietly setting the bait with masterful underplaying and making it all pay off down the line prevails once again.
As for Travolta, his over-the-top early scenes create some concern. But as Ryder settles into his verbal sparring with Garber, the characterization becomes more modulated, and the actor’s obviously delight with his role becomes contagious. Shaw gave real, understated gravity to his version of the part and remains the strongest element of the original film, but Travolta takes the baddie in an entirely different direction and does just fine.
Ryder’s three cohorts should have been given a few lines with which to individualize themselves, while a few of the hostage characters have their moments. Location work provides plenty of atmosphere, as do the extensive scenes below ground.