Tony Scott, Denzel Washington and John Travolta team for the second remake of the 1974 cult classic.
There’s an argument that says you can remake a story if the original film depicting it wasn’t that good in the first place. Already a grimy 1974 caper film starring Robert Shaw (Jaws) and Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple) as well as a 1998 telepic featuring Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) and Edward James Olmos (Stand & Deliver), Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 presents the biggest-budget production of the hijacked-subway hesit film yet, starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, and James Gandolfini. Both the 1974 and 98 versions were very good in their own rights, so is a second remake at all necessary? Probably not, but that’s not say it can’t make for diverting escapist summer fun. Anyway, the story’s nailbiter premise is so enticing we can understand why Scott et. al might want to try their luck at it.
Washington plays Walter Garber, a New York City Transit Authority dispatcher who receives word that a group of criminals have taken the Pelham Bay Park subway car hostage. The gang, led by the mysterious Ryder (Travolta), demands one million dollars for each passenger aboard the car, giving the Transit Authority one hour to meet their demands before they start killing their hostages. Garber’s willing to negotiate, even offering to trade himself for the hostages after a first ransom drop goes horriby wrong, but finds his efforts stymied both by the hostility of Ryder’s gang and a mayor (Gandolfini) reluctant to accede to their demands.
The original film, based on the novel by John Godey, included the nifty plot twist that Ryder’s gang, who use color-coordinated code names (inspiring Quentin Tarantino to use the same gimmick in Reservoir Dogs), includes a former subway motorman adept in manipulating the system’s vast network of failsafes and security precautions to provide for their escape. Garber and his fellow Transit Authority workers ultimately succeed in beating Ryder and the surviving hijackers by the narrowest of margins, with no real help from city officials. The film is famous for its New York style of cynicism, which by the crime-plagued mid-1970s was no doubt in ample supply. Like Vanishing Point or Assault On Precinct 13, over time it’s become a cult classic appreicated for its mood and outlook as much as technical accomplishment.
Scott’s new version is sleeker and brighter than its predecessors, and co-screenwriter David Koepp (War of the Worlds) reportedly labored to update the remake with 21st Century technology such as cell phones and GPS locators, as well immersing the hijacking elements within New York’s post-9/11 political climate. The film also marks the fourth collaboration between Scott (Enemy of the State) and Washington, after Deja Vu (2004), Man On Fire (2003) and Crimson Tide (1995), though each successive team-up has brought diminishing box office returns. Scott lobbied hard for Travolta’s involvement, likely as a counter-balance to Washington’s formidable screen presence.
Movies such as this – slick, well-heeled action efforts featuring A-list stars and with plots that don’t expect much from their audiences – were rampant in the Schwarenegger/Willis heyday of the 1990s but in recent years have become rarer or less accomplished: last year’s Eagle Eyewas a notable failed effort to recapture such films’ polished bankability. Washington by now owns the concession on playing harried, professional everymen after Inside Man and John Q, and he’s actually more appealing playing such characters than the outsized mega-men of American Gangster and Training Day. For Travolta, who seldom plays the heavy, (most notably in 1996′s otherwise-underwhelming Broken Arrow), the role apparently offers him the chance to ham it up and chew his lines after years in drag (Hairspray) and voicing computer animated dogs (Bolt). Gandolfini, The Sopranos notwithstanding, is sometimes repetitious in his performances, so we expect plenty of smug New Yawking from his turn as the opportunistic mayor.
Still, there’s an audience for the film’s brand of faux, easily digested realism, and it almost certainly doesn’t aspire to be anything more than entertaining, which is itself true to the pulpy spirit of the original. Finally, it’s also good to see Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights) returning from wherever the hell he’s been the last few years, appearing here as a crucial member of Ryder’s crew. John Turturro, Michael Rispoli, and Victor Gojcaj also star.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens nationwide June 12.
- Michael Kabel