Way back in 1974, when the world was young and New York was mere meadowlands, a pretty good thriller called "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" screeched onto the screen. It starred Walter Matthau as a subway dispatcher forced to deal with the hijacker of a subway train, played by Robert Shaw just before he made "Jaws." The ransom demands were simple: One million in cash delivered within the hour or hostages would be offed one per minute.
In the remake, Denzel Washington is the dispatcher and John Travolta is the bad guy and the ransom is $10 million. That ransom isn't the only sign of inflation. Whereas the original, directed by Joseph Sargent, was essentially a well-oiled B movie, the new incarnation, directed by Tony ("Enemy of the State") Scott, is bristling with high-tech gimcrackery and over-the-top camera flourishes. Scott is the kind of director who can't just show you something – he has to pull our eyes out of their sockets. Doesn't he realize that the New York subway netherworld is already a stage set? Scott's whirlybird camera moves and editing rhumbas don't add to the mix, they detract.
Washington's Walter Garber toils in the transit system's control headquarters; he's a lifer in the tunnels. Although he's under a cloud for possibly accepting a bribe on the job, we are made to understand that he's a decent man. His adversary, Travolta's Ryder, has a scary black mustache and a neck tattoo. As befitting a villain, he also has most of the good lines. (Brian Helgeland wrote the script.)
Walter and Ryder, via microphone hookup, develop a queasy rapport. Head games are played on both sides, but the shenanigans are fairly routine. At one point, Walter, with the off-mic coaching of a hostage negotiator (an excellent John Turturro), cagily elicits the fact that Ryder was raised a Roman Catholic and spent time in prison. That should narrow the list of possible suspects.
Washington, wearing geeky glasses, looks rather flabby in the role. (Let's hope the poundage is on purpose.) Although it's nice to see him playing an average guy for a change, instead of a fire breather, it's also a disappointment. I didn't feel as if I was getting the whole actor here, just a marked-down facsimile. Travolta, by contrast, overplays as much as Washington underplays. He's like the meanie in a pulp superhero thriller. This impression is reinforced when Ryder, in the film's nuttiest set piece, sends the train speeding brakeless toward Coney Island. I expected Spider Man to save the day.
Ryder might as well be acting alone, since his accomplices are barely sketched in. (Did Scott think that Travolta might be upstaged? Fat chance.) James Gandolfini shows up in an amusing cameo as the mayor, in a part that seems cobbled together from oddments in the careers of Rudy Giuliani, Elliot Spitzer, and Donald Trump. At one point the mayor, fighting the one-hour deadline, complains that the ransom money should have been zipped to Ryder via helicopter instead of through the clogged city streets. We know the answer to that one: If a helicopter had been used, there would have been no movie.
The 1974 "Pelham" came out at a time when New York City was a big scary deal onscreen. Films such as "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "The French Connection" really ramped up the urban gothic grunge. In today's benighted world, New York is perceived less as the progenitor of plagues and more like their recipient. New York has gone from perpetrator to victim. Back in 1974, the bad guys bubbled up from the bowels of the city. Today, they are just one more species of careerist and the city in which they operate is no longer central to our movie nightmares. How can it be? In an out-of-control world there is no such thing as mission control. Grade: B- (Rated R for violence and pervasive language.)