The newest version of The Taking Of Pelham 123 is the second remake of the 1974 original (a late 90's made-for-TV version is the other). I haven't seen the 1974 version, though the word "classic" pops up regularly in the little I had read or heard about it over the years. One assumes it must be better than the 2009 version, which then begs the question: if you can't improve upon the original then why bother? Of course, this clearly isn't a perspective Hollywood has ever subscribed to.
Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, a New York City Transit employee demoted to the relatively lowly position of train dispatcher. Garber has the bad luck of being on duty when John Travolta (identified in the film only as Ryder) and some accomplices hijack one of the subway trains on Garber's watch. A large ransom is demanded, with a window of only 60 minutes granted for delivery.
And so begins your standard "countdown" thriller, a sub-genre that rarely seems to work well (the most recent misstep was the atrocious 88 Minutes). There's a decent amount of tension as the clock winds down and the money is hastily organized and subsequently rushed across the city, causing chaos on the city's already chaotic streets. During these scenes the obvious question comes to mind: why wouldn't they just get a helicopter? James Gandolfini, playing the city's mayor, asks the same question later in the movie.
Washington, looking noticeably heavier for this role, is solid playing an everyman saddled under the weight of corruption allegations, which led to his demotion. It's not a flashy part and one wishes he had a little more to work with...some of the dialogue is uninspired enough to elicit expectations of him dropping a rote "I'm getting too old for this shit"-type line on us. The role also brought to mind comparisons with 1999's The Bone Collector, also set in NYC, where his character had plenty of faceless communication amidst time constraints with the movie's other main character (played by Angelia Jolie).
Travolta should avoid bad guy roles because he simply can't play them. Previous turns as the villain in Swordfish, Broken Arrow and Face/Off have proven that. Here, he resorts once again to chewing scenery and spontaneous acts of violence. I'll give him marks for looking the part, with badass neck tattoos and an imposing fu manchu moustache, but that just isn't enough. His accomplices barely register onscreen, which is a sad comment when one of them is played by the usually entertaining Luis Guzmán.
Gandolfini was the highlight of the film for me, turning in a strong performance as the city's leader hopeful of changing the public's opinion of him, but also genuinely concerned and eager to assist in resolving the crisis. He displays a likability foreign to his previous film roles, which always seemed like offshoots of his bearish Tony Soprano character (like his recent turn from In The Loop). John Turturro, playing the hostage negotiator, should have given a little more pause to the role he signed on for. Aside from the paycheque, visibility of appearing in a high profile movie with two huge stars and another credit to add to his body of work, there's little else that would appear to have drawn him to the film and this part, specifically. Actually, now that I think about it, I suppose those aren't exactly the worst reasons for an actor doing a movie. It beats digging ditches for a living now, doesn't it?
Tony Scott directed the film, his fourth collaboration with Washington. His directing style, with all of its fancy tricks and stylized shots, gets a little intrusive and tiresome. The end result isn't exactly a terrible movie - just one you'll not give much thought to an hour after you've seen it.