Man, inflation is a bitch. Back in 1974, when the original, Joseph Sargent–directed The Taking of Pelham One Two Three came out, the subway hijackers only wanted a million bucks for their trouble. That’s not good enough for the bad guy played by John Travolta in this remake; no, his ransom is in the $100 million range.
Of course, that’s not the only difference between these two films; the 35 years that have passed since the original – a taut and fast-paced thriller that’s long been a favorite among action-movie snobs – have done much to redraw the requirements of what an action flick has to deliver. And from a title sequence that juxtaposes an incongruous (and somewhat dated) Jay-Z track over a jarringly edited and over-effected bit of visual character exposition through an opening half-hour brimming with quick cuts and pointless profanity, it seems that Pelham ’09 is going to be the kind of ham-fisted and brain-numbing stuff that studios think audiences crave.
However, director Tony Scott (True Romance, Enemy of the State) manages to downshift Pelham into an engaging, if not particularly subtle, character-driven flick. Denzel Washington plays the unfortunate dispatcher who happens to field the first communications from Travolta after the subway train has been hijacked. Obviously, the increasingly entangled back-and-forth between the two is what keeps the film moving, but as additional characters drop in – James Gandolfini as the couldn’t-really-give-a-shit mayor, John Turturro as the ineffective police negotiator – the repartee between Washington’s accidental hero and Travolta’s cold-blooded kook of a bad guy amasses more and more meaning.
Subtextual criticisms are lobbed at everything from bureaucratic inefficiencies to the news media, and some of the more grandiose attempts at “statement” fall laughably short, but watching Washington’s character develop throughout the process is more interesting than wondering exactly what’s gonna happen to the hostages. Still, at its heart, Pelham is an action flick, and Scott jams in gunplay, car crashes and plenty of other action tropes to keep the audience engaged in the fate of the subway car passengers.
Unfortunately, once their fate is decided, there’s a full half-hour of film left to go, as we watch the characters resolve themselves from the day’s events. Despite how moderately interested the viewer may have become in the lives of the dispatcher and the hostage-taker, those 30 minutes are a dull bit of post-climax drain-circling that ultimately unravels much of the good work Scott has done in the film’s middle portion.
That middle portion is where the 1974 film’s character is felt, as dialogue, dramatic tension, flashes of dark humor and a few well-crafted action scenes combine for something that feels just a notch or two above yesterday’s standard action-movie fare. Although diehard fans of the original should stay far, far away from it, the new Pelham provides a level of engagement – at least in that middle bit – that puts it a notch or two above today’s standard action-movie fare.