New York. A man calling himself Ryder (Travolta) leads a gang who hijack a Subway train, hold the passengers hostage and demand a huge ransom from the city. Public transportation manager Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) handles the negotiations with the crooks...
Versions of the thriller The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three account for three-fifths of novelist John Godey’s IMDb listing — the remainder being the Disney Dick Van Dyke crime comedy Never A Dull Moment and the bizarre Walter Hill-Mickey Rourke movie Johnny Handsome. The original 1974 theatrical feature, efficiently directed by Joseph Sargent, starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw as a transport cop and his businesslike master-criminal antagonist, talking throughout but only meeting in the tag scene. A 1998 TV remake with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio stuck close to the film version — even reprising the business of criminals code-naming themselves ‘Mr. Blue’, ‘Mr. Green’ etc. after it had been hijacked for Reservoir Dogs. Now, Tony Scott and his regular action star Denzel Washington — having recently clicked with a remake of the little-known Scott Glenn thriller Man On Fire — take another run at Godey’s solidly constructed story... and come seriously off the rails.
Brian Helgeland’s script deletes anything from the original film that sticks in the mind (there’s no commuter-look killers, no final sneeze) and then burdens the main characters with overly complicated backstories. Washington and Travolta are both ill-served by the suggestion that they don’t have the chops to project characters onscreen the way Matthau and Shaw can without being propped up by waffle about corruption charges hanging over just-demoted transport boss Garber or the tattooed, profane gang-leader’s unlikely Wall Street background. Travolta’s villain is all over the place, tapping into the stock market figures on his laptop, snarling, “The mayor can lick my bunghole,” shooting hostages like a psycho and throwing tantrums that make him seem less dangerous than deranged. Travolta’s Ryder is such a flake you feel you’re being set up, and this blundering idiot will be revealed as a mastermind whose irrational acts are part of a brilliantly worked-out plan. But no, he’s just a nut. Washington is better, though he has to douse his natural charisma to play a put-upon, desk-sitting bureaucrat and coasts through another flat hero role. Contrivances get Garber out of the control room and into the unremarkable action, humping the ransom down tunnels, driving the train, pulling a gun, jogging through chases... Cheating Washington out of Matthau’s wonderful sign-off look, the film rewards its star with a truly bathetic grin at his pet dog instead.
Scott’s style, all staccato edits and blurry panic, pays off in a few minor scenes, though it’s a pity a sub-plot traffic accident has more impact than the main event. The support get little to do, too: Luis Guzmán as a crooked train driver represents a tradition that versions of this story feature major Hispanic talent, but can’t match what Hector Elizondo did with Shaw’s lizardy right-hand man; John Turturro strides in as a hostage negotiator as if he’s going to lift the film but gets reduced to whispering tips into the hero’s ear; and James Gandolfini blusters without consistency as the just-about-to-retire mayor.
Implausibility shouldn’t be an issue in this sort of thriller, where audiences are willing to suspend disbelief in order to be strung along by suspense alone, but this is so unengaging that you have too much time to wonder about the miracle broadband connection in the subway, the hard-to-follow financial pages business about how Ryder really hopes to profit from the heist and the way that, in a roomful of professionals, only Garber knows the Subway trivia on which the plot depends.
Pelham One was first class. Pelham Two stuck to the schedule. Pelham Three needs a bus pass.