The memory of fear wreaked by the airplanes that smashed into New York City’s iconic Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, is fresh for most New Yorkers; the memory of fear that rumbled through New York City’s iconic subway system during much of the 1970s is dim for many. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 avoids both detours — it’s neither too raw nor too nostalgic. And in the hands of director Tony Scott, it’s relevant but not too distressing, something that doesn’t shy away from jolting violence but is also, you know, fun.
That’s a pretty good trick for an open-hydrant whoooosh of an action thriller about a hijacked NYC subway train with passengers held as hostages — a caffeinated update of a 1974 city-on-fire cult classic that cracked wise with a cynical, now nostalgia-inducing, graffiti-era veracity. (The original movie was based on a novel by Brooklyn native son Morton Freedgood, who used the crime-fiction pen name John Godey.)
It makes perfect sense that Scott would be the director who dared the remake. The Brit comes from the dart-and-weave school of music videos and made Top Gun and Crimson Tide, among many other movies. With Pelham, he has delivered a souped-up, multiculti metropolis of his own invention, a world capital that’s sort of recognizable as the home of high rollers, low crazies, and regular transit-system schmos, but also clearly a construct, a stage for his characteristic Scott stuff.
As in the first movie, the story centers on a hijacking mastermind and the transit schmo who faces him down (they were played to unhinged and schlumpy perfection, respectively, by Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau). But in this new New York, cat and mouse are no longer the quirky loners they were in the original. Now, in Brian Helgeland’s quick-thinking script, the antagonists have sprawly psychological backstories, and they’re played by big stars with equally sprawly paychecks. John Travolta is the guy who recruits a small crew of thugs, takes over the train, demands ransom money on a tight schedule, and threatens to kill passengers. And, working with his director for the fourth time (most recently in 2006’s Déjà Vu), a beefy Denzel Washington makes the unexpected interpretive choice of letting a mild demeanor mask a spikier inner life as the dispatcher on duty.
Not that the backstories mean a thing. The moviemakers go out of their way to suggest why Travolta, as a guy now called Ryder (gone are the nifty goon names from 1974 — Mr. Blue, Mr. Gray, etc.), would be such a high-strung chatterbox with a porn-star ‘stache and a Roman Catholic religious streak. Time is also wasted explaining why Washington is more conflicted than your average civil servant. And the script now makes room for business involving a hostage negotiator (John Turturro), a hidden video cam that captures the subway chaos on a hipster’s laptop, a cameo or two from real local-TV news anchors, and a lesson about stock-market vulnerability.
But in the end, it’s really all about the chase, the ticktock of the clock as regular guys scramble to thwart irregular guys. Scott gets into the zip and rush of urban energy with an enthusiasm bordering on hilarity. (More than once, that energy goes haywire, with silly vertiginous 360-degree spins around guys…just…talking.) This Pelham doesn’t try too hard for timeliness, since really hijacking timeliness in post-9/11 New York is too terrifying to offer as summer entertainment. But with one character, at least, the movie has fun with the present. In a thoroughly comfortable, delight-the-audience performance, James Gandolfini plays the mayor of New York — and not for nuthin’ is this politician in charge of the city that never sleeps. The fictional Mr. Mayor has the wealth and Wall Street acumen of the current mayor, Mike Bloomberg — and a hint of the grandiosity (and divorce follies) of the previous office-holder, Rudy Giuliani. In the first Pelham, the mayor was something of a schnook propped up by his staff, a joke. But the elected official played by Gandolfini is a believable pol in a wild ride of a movie every viewer needs to believe is only a movie. B+
More on Pelham 1 2 3: Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman compare notes