In this remake of the 1974 film that epitomized the emerging hot, overbearing, urban and pessimistic style of the 1970's, a group of hijackers led by "Ryder" ( John Travolta) takes over a New York subway car in the middle of an underground tunnel, and demands a ransom of $10 Million to be delivered in one hour. Otherwise, one passenger will be shot every minute.
Ryder establishes contact with Garber (Denzel Washington) a subway authority dispatcher with a troubled past of his own. As the clock ticks towards the deadline, the relationship between Ryder and Garber forms the core of the film, as all around them there is panic. The New York Mayor (James Gandolfini) and his entourage wade in; a professional negotiator (John Turtorro) has to work around Ryder's insistence of only talking to Garber; the SWAT teams have to deal with an unhinged hijacker who is not afraid to pull the trigger; and the police have to escort $10 million in cash across town, using a high-speed convoy through busy New York traffic.
This latter plot element is an extremely contrived addition to the movie, apparently for the sole purpose of satisfying director Tony Scott's desire for a high speed chase scene, complete with multiple crashes and cars flying off overpasses. As the mayor says halfway through, echoing the question in every viewer's mind, "couldn't they have used a helicopter?"
In keeping with modern times, this version of The Taking of Pelham 123 has a generally positive message about New York, and gently celebrates the city's services, workers, and emergency responders. It's an interesting but not unwelcome departure from the original, celebrating how far the city's image has been improved.
The two old pros Travolta and Washington both deliver polished performances, working from a script by Brian Helgeland. Travolta has the more maniacal role with not inappropriate frequent and sharp mood swings. Washington is remarkably cool throughout, in the process straining a bit at the credibility envelope of the skills under pressure that can be expected from a city employee.
The 2009 edition of The Taking of Pelham 123 is unlikely to be fondly remembered 35 years from now, like the original is. At the same time, it is a star-driven slick and entertaining hijack caper that can be enjoyed on its own merits.
All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.