Every big-budget action thriller needs a villain who artfully represents the audience’s fear du jour. As Ryder, the subway-hijacking financial terrorist of Tony Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, John Travolta sincerely attempts to turn his eternal-teen swagger into psychopathic threat. With a fake neck tattoo, menacing Van Dyke beard, and an artificial cold stare, the 55-year-old Travolta looks and sounds as boyish as ever, and that’s a problem — you have a hard time accepting him as a raging former Wall Street wizard who plays mind games with mass transit dispatcher Denzel Washington during an underground Manhattan hostage situation.
Merciless Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff may be the jumping-off point for Travolta’s souped-up, sociopathic finance man, but The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has older source material: Joseph Sargent’s 1974 heist flick of the same name, with Walter Matthau as the negotiator and Robert Shaw as the head gunman who happily tabulates the value of human life in dollar amounts. In both movies, a dozen or so New Yorkers are kidnapped and held inside a subway car until an exorbitant ransom demand is met. For every minute that city officials dawdle with the cash, another hostage will be offed.
Many fans consider Sargent’s movie to be the model for building suspense through trickle-down revelations about the characters. In both the original and the remake, factual crumbs about the good guy and the bad guy accumulate and seem to make their motives more complicated. Quentin Tarantino borrowed Sargent’s gimmick of bickering, color-coded crime conspirators for Reservoir Dogs, although he didn’t learn much from the original Pelham‘s sophisticated pace.
Luckily for audiences, director Scott did. Labeled since the mid-1980s as a vulgar hack toiling in brother Ridley’s shadow, Tony (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder) has spent the last few years creating high-speed, low-logic thrillers that’ve been largely overlooked — deservedly (Domino) and not so (Man on Fire). Here he fuses the emotional tug of Man on Fire with the original Pelham‘s long electric pauses during its real-time, life-and-death exchange. This is the director’s fourth collaboration with Washington, who offers a totally winning mix of restraint, gravity, and humor in the role of Garber, the Transit Authority peon whose own past financial dealings are questionable. Ever since Washington won his second Oscar, for Training Day, he has approached most roles as opportunities for another annoying onscreen meltdown. Playing the bespectacled Decent Guy in Pelham, Washington cleanly relays the stress of a man determined to keep talking until lives are saved.
James Gandolfini turns up in a very funny but largely decorative supporting role as the mayor, a scandal-plagued politico who recoils at the thought of elementary school photo ops because kids carry germs. John Turturro is effective as the official NYPD hostage negotiator who discovers the bloody lengths that Travolta will go to, to get Washington back to the microphone for their anxious verbal tango.
Fans of the original will justifiably harrumph that Hollywood has again traded gritty for slick. But on its own pop-adrenaline power, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 deserves to be a big summer hit. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland tart up the remake with all kinds of intrusive contemporary technologies (laptops, cell phones, security cameras). They heighten the sense that every place on the planet is now available all the time for public viewing, including the inside of an isolated subway car full of silent hostages. Even Travolta’s goofy-crazy shtick doesn’t drag things down too far.
Scott nails about 75 percent of this movie. The rest is his trademark screeching, crunching metal storm of crashing cars and spraying bullets. He needn’t have gone back to his noisy old tricks: In one of the movie’s best moments, a rat crawls up the trouser leg of a subway sniper and triggers an unintended melee. If Scott will just remember that creepy little details like that can trigger big consequences throughout a movie, he might go on to make a truly great thriller.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Starring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, and James Gandolfini. Written by Brian Helgeland from the novel by John Godey. Directed by Tony Scott. Rated R.