The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (dir: Tony Scott)
The original 1974 The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a kind of blue collar cult film, a smartly done crime thriller about smart crooks, a smart transit cop and a battle of wits over the hijacking of a subway car and the ransoming of the passenger. A terrific concept, great plotting and shoes-on-the-street police work.
Tony Scott, the director behind some of the emptiest action flash and confoundingly vacant thrillers of the past few decades, takes the helm of this remake and defies expectations. Directing from a solidly plotted script by Brian Helgeland, who isn’t slavish to the original film (the film credits John Godey’s novel but not the 1976 screenplay adaptation), he delivers a focused and refreshingly straightforward thriller that forgoes the usual high tech confusion and contrived high-concept twists so often laid in to surprise audiences.
Instead of a transit cop, Denzel Washington is disgraced transit official Walter Garber, demoted to dispatcher while under investigation for bribery. John Travolta is Ryder, the cunning mastermind in a four-man strike force that takes a subway car hostage and positions it deep in the tunnels, a solid tactical position out of cell phone range and easily defended from SWAT troops positioned at either end of the tunnel.
Ryder gives the city an hour to come up with $10 million and then he starts shooting hostages. Garber tries to calm him, stall while the city rushes the money across town in a speeding police motorcade. This is where Scott tosses in his favored screeching action scenes, smashing a few cars and sending one careening end over end until it drops off an overpass, but even he knows that it’s just flourish. The real story is the mind games and domination plays by Ryder and the efforts of Garber to hold his own on the other end of the subway radio connection.
“I’m just a guy at the other end of the mike,” Garber tells Ryder, which is exactly why Ryder wants him there. Washington is all understated modesty and integrity even as Ryder digs up the details of Garber’s bribery scandal and forces him to fess up. “You’re just like me,” Ryder crows over the radio, another guy persecuted for a little harmless corruption. Travolta plays Ryder as arrogant genius turned hardened thug, a financial mastermind who obfuscates his endgame by keeping the city off balance with distractions and deadlines.
John Turturro is a cagey hostage negotiator who first investigates and then coaches Ryder to keep his cool and James Gandolfini the exasperated mayor finishing out his term under a cloud of scandal, authority figures that Ryder takes great pleasure in humbling. Helgeland’s script is refreshingly free of psychological commentary; he leaves it to us to assess their drives and their demons.
“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” charges along the tracks without distraction or detours and there’s something refreshing in that kind of smart plotting and clean storytelling. It’s never more than a well-made thriller, but in this case that’s plenty.
This review is also posted at the Seattle PostGlobe here.
Directed by Tony Scott; screenplay by Brian Helgeland, from the novel by John Godey; featuring Denzel Washington, John Travolta, Luis Guzmán, Victor Gojcaj, John Turturro, James Gandolfini. R for violence and pervasive language. 106 minutes.