Internet buzz pre-slimed this New York subway-hijack thriller as a douched-up reboot of the 1974 original. Since I revere the first movie, especially the hangdog genius of Walter Matthau as transit cop Zachary Garber, I sympathized. Then I saw The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and the sucker grabbed me from the minute Denzel Washington, basically in the Matthau role, came on as train dispatcher Walter Garber. That’s right: Walter! One hell of a classy name-check, if you ask me.
And that’s it for comparisons. The new, post-9/11 Pelham packs its own heat. This movie hits you like 600 volts from a sparking third rail. Damn straight it’s electrifying. Director Tony Scott (bravo True Romance and Crimson Tide, boo Domino) keeps the suspense on high sizzle. And screenwriter Brian Helgeland (bravo L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, boo The Postman), doing a freestyle adaptation of John Godey’s novel, takes the time to anchor the thrills to character.
Plot? A subway train leaves the Pelham Bay Park terminal in the Bronx at 1:23 p.m. (ah, title mystery solved). At Grand Central Station, John Travolta — rockin’ a handlebar and a neck tattoo — jabs a gun through the motorman’s window and seizes the train and its passengers. His henchman Ramos (the great Luis Guzmán) takes the wheel. At 2:13 p.m., Ryder — that’s Travolta’s fake name — phones Garber at the subway control center and says he’ll start shooting passengers in 59 minutes unless. . . .
That’s the setup. Want to know more, like how these bastards intend to escape what is surely an underground trap? See the movie. What counts is how Scott keeps you sweating it out. Travolta and Washington are dynamite in roles that could have slid by as stereotypes. Ryder, a former Wall Street player who once globeÂtrotted with an ass model, is pumped for vengeance against the city for making him do time for embezzlement. Family man Garber also knows how it feels to be squeezed. He’s facing bribery charges. Forget hero and villain. These guys stand on the same shifting moral ground.
Washington is playing against type as a lazy bureaucrat forced into the unlikely position of hostage negotiator. That’s why Camonetti (John Turturro), the real negotiator, is initially suspicious that Garber and Ryder may be in cahoots. Turturro is a marvel of an actor. His skill sneaks up on you. “We’re like rodeo clowns,” he tells Garber. “We keep the bull from focusing on what he really wants to do.”
Scott possesses the same expertise. He gets the best from the actors, including James Gandolfini as a wealthy mayor (any guesses?). The only letdown comes in Scott’s handling of the passengers, who remain frustratingly generic. What counts is it’s pressure-cooker cinema, heightened by gritty on-location camerawork from Tobias Schliessler that makes you feel the speed, danger and dirt in your bones. As the movie hurtles to its finish line, with a foot chase less startling than the original’s simple sneeze, Travolta and Washington never miss a step. With no scenes together until the climax, they use their voices, their teasing humor and the secret rage of their characters to pump bruised humanity into an action epic that just wants to rock and roll. It’s a first-class ride. All aboard.