Tuesday, June 16, 2009


As the second remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," the latest version starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta manages to be a slick and suspenseful white-knuckler. Nevertheless, this glossy new epic with its numerous narrative changes doesn't surpass director Joseph Sargent's 1974 original that toplined Walter Matthau & Robert Shaw. "Top Gun" director Tony Scott and Oscar-winning "L.A. Confidential" scenarist Brian Helgeland have cherry picked scenes and ideas from both author John Godey's bestselling novel and Sargent's original. Sadly, Scott and Helgeland have altered irreparably the characters of hero and villain in the name of political correctness. Not only have they changed the hero from a Transit Authority lieutenant to a corrupt subway employee, but they have also altered the villain from an out-of-work mercenary to a sleazy Wall Street crook.

Furthermore, the second remake of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" (**1/2 out of ****) suffers from a dire lack of credibility. Denzel Washington's last minute transformation from a non-violent subway dispatcher to a gun-toting crusader who can commandeer a vehicle so he can pursue the villain isn't persuasive enough to pass muster. Additionally, the new technology that the film features is marginal when you consider either what Scott and Helgeland have omitted or ignored as solid story elements. Mind you, Scott generates more than enough tension to make you put you on the edge of yours seat while the villains hold hostages, but the surprises are few and far between in this R-rated actioneer. Consequently, we have a tainted hero who isn't a professional like Walter Matthau's Transit Cop in the original. Incidentally, I missed the 1989 made-for-TV remake with "Miami Vice" star James Edward Olmos. Anyway, an ordinary guy is now the hero, while the villain is an egotistical lout. Happily, actor John Travolta delivers a strong, wholly believable performance as the unhinged maniac who planned this hijacking.

As Garber's murderous adversary, Ryder (John Travolta) is two weeks out of prison with a tattoo on his neck, a bandit mustache, and a willingness to blow the brains out of hostages at point blank range. He is an ex-Wall Street broker who tampered with the city of New York's pension fund, and he is using the hijacking incident to play the stock market for bigger gains. Helgeland has concocted some good ideas, such as Ryder's stock market scheme, but he has provided some bad things, too. For example, heroic subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington of "Man on Fire") is suspected of accepting a $35-thousand dollar bribe during a business trip to Japan and has been demoted. The day that Ryder (John Travolta of "Wild Hogs") occupies the eponymous subway train with his three fellow conspirators and demands $10-million from NYC, Garber is working as the dispatcher. Ryder contacts him and makes his demands. When Garber's supervisor relieves him, Ryder threatens to kill a hostage if they don't recall Garber. Ryder simply doesn't trust anybody, but he believes Garber because the latter admitted that he took a bribe in the presence of eye-witnesses.

The villains, a quartet of submachine gun toting goons, hijack the subway train and stop it in the middle of a busy tunnel. They disconnect all the cars from the engine car and let the motorman and the passengers trudge back to the last platform. A cop tries to intervene as the transfer is going down, and the badguys riddle him with a hail of bullets. Now, the badguys hold the 17 passengers and the conductor from the first car, shut the power off to the tracks, and establish their own wireless access so that they can monitor the Internet as news about them develops in the city. During this interval, Ryder surfs the web and discovers that Garber has been accused of bribery.

One of Helgeland's bad ideas is a teenage passenger with a lap-top computer. When Ryder brings the subway train to a jarring halt, the computer flies out of the kid's hands and slides underneath the seats across the aisle from him. The kid can clearly see his idiotic girlfriend on the 16-inch monitor begging to know what has happened. Initially, after the train halts, the Internet connection between the kid and his girlfriend is disrupted. Later, after the villains establish power so that Ryder can monitor the stock market, the kid's lap-top comes back on-line. Eventually, the girlfriend arranges things up so that her boyfriend's computer is streaming live video from the train that apparently nobody else but the cops can view. Moreover, Ryder's cretinous cohorts patrol the aisle but cannot spot a lap-top computer with its glowing picture screen. Talk about a serious lapse in credibility! Naturally, everything above ground goes amok in New York City. The unhappy NYC mayor (James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos") rushes to the subway command center to assure Ryder that New York will pay the ransom. Incredibly, the city has a short length of time to count the cash and deliver by police couriers with motorcycle patrolmen blocking intersections across the city as the couriers race as breakneck speed. At one point, an accident occurs and the courier vehicle is smashed and sent flying off a bridge to crash into on-coming traffic in the lanes under the bridge!

Scott does a good job of ramping up the action and keeping things tense both above and below ground as Ryder's clock ticks to a dangerous deadline. Altogether, Scott's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" isn't a bad movie, but it isn't half as good as Joseph Sargent's original nail-biter. Travolta makes a solid villain, unstable as all get-out, but Robert Shaw was better in the first film. If you haven't seen the 1974 original, then you don't know what you are missing. Prepare yourself for a great deal of profanity in "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" and several violent shoot-outs, especially one street shoot-out where two men perish in a barrage of gunfire.

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