Pelham Remake Relies on its Stars
The two main reasons to see the remake of 1974’s “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” are, not surprisingly, the film’s two big stars: Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Subways haven’t changed much over four decades (Pelham is still a NYC stop), and despite director Tony Scott’s (“D?j? Vu”) obvious and sometimes annoying use of frenetic camera techniques to update the story, the film depends not on pyrotechnics but on its cat-and-mouse subjects to deliver its thrills.
Washington is Walter Garber, a paunchy veteran MTA dispatcher with a checkered past, and Travolta is sociopath Ryder, who masterminds a small band of thugs that holds a subway and its occupants hostage. At first, these seem like odd casting choices. Will our affection for Washington, the hero in so many of his roles impede our ability to believe his vulnerable, unassuming character? And will Travolta’s likeability, even in some of his darker roles, cause us to not take seriously his homicidal tendencies?
The short answers are no and no.
Until the film’s final, clich?d moments, Washington’s character is perfectly and credibly unpretentious. The screenplay, written by Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by John Godey), uses Travolta’s affable sensibilities well. He’s a maniac with a smart sense of humor, and the psychological interplay between the two is riveting and believable.
Several things strain credibility, including hostages that don’t seem very afraid, a preposterous stock trading sub-plot, and the pervasive “f-words” that seem tireless in their attempt to prove, ostensibly, how “tough” New Yorkers are. Nearly everybody drops at least one, so it’s actually a surprise when a young boy taken hostage doesn’t participate in the fun with a capital “F.” Well, he did only have one line.
As for the film’s portrayal of the NYPD as mostly buffoons, well, that’s so 1974.
The elaborate Manhattan subway system, with its bright displays managed on wall-sized color monitors, provides a fascinating background to the proceedings. Until the final 20 minutes, when the film devolves into typical action-chase formula, “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3” rides the talents of its two stars and keeps things interesting. The movie is at its best when it’s not trying too hard to show how gritty it is.
Rated R for violence and pervasive language.