"Subway Thriller Stays On-Track"
U.S. & World
"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" — a minor classic from 1974 starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw — may not have been exactly screaming for a remake. But the one bestowed upon summertime moviegoers by high-concept director Tony Scott — truncated from "One Two Three" to "123" — stays on track as an entertaining-enough suspense thriller featuring fine performances by Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini.
Washington plays Walter Garber, the subway dispatcher played in the original film by Matthau. Travolta takes over as Ryder, the train hijacker originally played by Shaw. The basic premise is the same as the '74 version (which itself was based on the novel by John Godley): Ryder is holding passengers on a subway train hostage in exchange for $10 million (up from $1 million in the original film). Garber finds himself in the unlikely and unenviable position as hostage negotiator — a job he better learn how to do fast, or Ryder will terminate one hostage for every minute past his one-hour deadline.
If the original film (directed by Joseph Sargent) can be better appreciated now for depicting the gritty New York City of a bygone era, the update is pure Tony Scott, complete with all of his signature bells and whistles — a blaring music soundtrack, hyper-kinetic editing and washed-out colors. While some of that works well enough to keep the otherwise talky thriller moving along at an engaging pace, Scott overdoes it at times with map animation and freeze-framed countdown images that are more humorous than they were intended to be (just like they were when Scott employed the same effect in 2001's "Spy Game").
And where the original version was surprisingly timely by depicting city politicians as raging opportunists, the remake aims to be nothing more than an entertaining thriller. And for the most part, it is, save for some contrived dialogue and an ineffective subplot regarding Washington's character.
But Washington — working with Scott for the fourth time after "Crimson Tide," "Man on Fire" and "Deja Vu" — makes it work as an everyman thrust into unusual circumstances, while John Travolta seems to relish playing one of his best bad-guy roles since "Face/Off" and "Broken Arrow." James Gandolfini is also effective as the well-meaning mayor of New York who's rocked by a personal scandal, but Luis Guzman is underutilized as Travolta's partner-in-crime.
Like most of Tony Scott's slick Hollywood productions — the best of which include 1986's "Top Gun" and 1995's "Crimson Tide" — and like a real subway ride itself, "The Taking of Pelham 123" is more entertaining the less you think about it. And if you think about it, what more can anyone ask from a summertime thriller?
Verdict: SEE IT!
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