There are a few flaws in Tony Scott’s reworking of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, but the giddy exuberance of this character-driven thriller gets the audience over the rough spots with few regrets. The story has added cell phones and the internet to the mix without tarting up the proceedings with gratuitous special effects. It’s basically two guys under duress and working through some issues that involve hostages, responsibility, and money. Lots and lots of money.
The guys are Garber (Denzel Washington), a New York City subway dispatcher under suspicion of having taken a bribe, and Ryder (John Travolta), the kidnapper holding 19 people hostage on a subway car that he has ingeniously separated from its train and stashed in a tunnel. They spend the film talking to one another over the transit radio, a conversation that starts with a demand for ten million dollars in exactly one hour, and develops into a peculiar confessional for each of them punctuated with gunfire.
The writing is brisk, with mordant humor and subtle power struggles among all concerned. The pace is deliberate, but not leaden. The delivery deadline plays out effectively in real time, with Scott getting a little too cutesy with stop-action accompanying the caption informing the audience of the time remaining. The slo-mo effects also come across as trying a little too hard to make the visuals more exciting. It’s not necessary. The race across town with the cash played against the tension in the subway car works well enough on its own. Yet its Travoltas performance, not the squealing tires or crashing fenders that ignites the film. His is a euphoric insanity with a hair trigger. Jocular and menacing at the same time, his mood swings are ferocious. Washington, slightly paunchy, a scooch nerdy despite a diamond ear-stud the size of a large blueberry, is the perfect everyman in an impossible situation, negotiating with a killer and coming under suspicion himself by the official police hostage negotiator (John Turturro). He sweats with admirable conviction. James Gandolfino as New York’s mayor, suffering his own bout of duress, does anything but sweat as a tough and smooth politician who has made his peace with the public and dreams of nothing more than a life without subways, school kids with runny noses, or reporters asking inane questions.
THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is a solid entertainment that effectively demonstrates why the idea of remaking a good film occasionally has some validity. When logic subsides, as alas it does, it is the sheer force of Washingtons intensity and Travoltas élan that keeps the film on, ahem, track.