Review: ‘Pelham 123’ doesn’t measure up

In the new "The Taking of Pelham 123," a minor ’70s classic gets a big-ticket upgrade in Tony Scott’s subway thriller.

Ostensibly based on John Godey’s novel, not Peter Stone’s screenplay for the 1974 film, this adaptation represents an evolution, but not necessarily an improvement. The plan is essentially unchanged, at least at first. A group of armed men hijack the titular New York subway train. They decouple all but the lead carriage, hole up between stations, and the leader, who calls himself “Ryder” (John Travolta), calmly informs the radio controller that the city has just one hour to cough up a $10 million ransom to secure the lives of the passengers. On the face of it, it’s a bewildering scheme. Escape seems unlikely. But there’s no question these men mean business. When the transit dispatcher, Walter (Denzel Washington), is replaced by a professional hostage negotiator (John Turturro), Ryder signals his displeasure by shooting the train driver dead. Walter is returned to his post, too late for his colleague, but still with an outside chance of saving the day. The first “Pelham” is remembered for three things: the color-coded criminals (a conceit that Quentin Tarantino would replay in “Reservoir Dogs”), a vintage Walter Matthau performance and the clever kicker. Scott’s version — written by Brian “L.A. Confidential” Helgeland — axes the first and third elements entirely, and substitutes Matthau’s baleful transit cop with Denzel’s disgraced manager, demoted to the dispatcher’s desk after accusations that he’s taken a bribe.

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From this dubious original sin, Helgeland fashions a textbook redemptive arc for Walter, and a phony connection between the civil servant and the crook, whom he immediately pegs for a Catholic. (An earring in the form of the cross confirms it.) The two men take turns playing priest and penitent, detective and quarry, while Scott desperately tries to rev up the action, crashing several police vehicles as authorities race the ransom money across town. Scott, a moviemaker who instinctively feels the need for speed (as Tom Cruise put it in Scott’s “Top Gun”), isn’t exactly playing to his strengths here. His hyperactive panning and shuffling don’t so much disguise the talk-talk at the center of the script as distract from it. The relentless sideways shunting motion becomes such a tic that when a real action sequence presents itself — a runaway train careering down the tracks — Scott contrives to make it look almost inert, as thrilling as a stoplight. More than anything, though, the new “Pelham” reflects how New York has cleaned up its act over the last three decades. The racially obsesssed vernacular of the ’70s is gone, for the most part. (Travolta lets off a few cracks at the expense of Italians, but no one else rises to that challenge.) The rank but pungent smell of the old boroughs has given way to scratch-and-sniff references to terrorists, Wall Street and a philandering mayor (James Gandolfini). Perhaps as an unintended side effect, the colorful character bits fleshed out in the original by Hector Elizondo, Jerry Stiller and Martin Balsam (to name but three) are steamrollered by the new movie’s twin star turns. Even a reliable scene-stealer like Luis Guzman barely gets a word in edgewise as John and Denzel go through their paces. It’s an uneven fight, but that is by design. Travolta, goateed and tattooed, goes for the jugular, ranting and raging entertainingly, but to diminishing effect. Washington is the tortoise in this race: slow and steady. No prizes for guessing who comes out on top … Yup. That would be Walter Matthau. As simple as 1, 2, 3. “The Taking of Pelham 123” is rated R and runs 95 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly’s review, click here.