The way the title of the original 1974 film – “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” – has been condensed tells you everything you need to know about the direction “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” is headed. In these fast-paced, mixed-up times, it simply takes too long to spell out the numbers.
Then again, just knowing the director is Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Man on Fire,” “Domino”) is a major indicator of the changes in store. What was a low-key, steadily paced thriller about a New York subway hijacking has been amped up with Scott’s trademark acrobatics: incessant camera movement, sped-up footage that jarringly cuts to slo-mo, seizure-inducing edits and a blaring soundtrack.
Considering that you have heavyweights Denzel Washington and John Travolta squaring off, with a script from Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”), you just want to scream at the screen for Scott to settle down and let the exchanges play out for themselves.
For the brief moments he does just that, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” can be a tense, engaging battle of wits, despite its preposterous premise.
Travolta stars as Ryder, the leader of a group of baddies who take over a downtown train. He demands $10 million in one hour (up from $1 million in ’74) or he’ll start killing the passengers.
Washington (in the Walter Matthau role) plays Walter Garber, the dispatcher on the other end of the microphone who must listen/probe/stall/cajole as a de facto crisis manager. He brings his typical grace to this rare regular-guy role, and the script fleshes out his character this time with an undercurrent of moral ambiguity that offers some welcome context.
While it’s refreshing to see Travolta make the part more of a live-wire than Robert Shaw’s understated original villain, he also gets shrieky in a way that recalls his performance in the infamous “Battlefield Earth.”
It’s amusing to see James Gandolfini as New York City’s mayor – the former “Sopranos” star on the right side of the law – who whines about having to run all over town dealing with this problem. And John Turturro is solid, as always, as a police hostage negotiator, a character that didn’t exist in the original.
A high-tech element provides a neat twist as the story unfolds and adds to the ways Ryder and Garber can provoke and eventually understand each other. But the prevalence of technology also makes the crime itself seem rather archaic. This is the way a criminal mastermind steals millions of dollars today – by hijacking a subway train?
Granted, it is tempting to do something rash after repeatedly hearing that annoying recorded voice urging you to stand clear of the closing doors, but there have to be more efficient plans than this.