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Initially, Travolta’s performance feels over the top, but it improves as the movie progresses.

STEPHEN VAUGHAN/© 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

2 out of 4 stars


The Taking of Pelham 123

  • Directed by Tony Scott
  • Written by Brian Helgeland
  • Starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta
  • Classification: 14A

The crime, the squalor, the political corruption, the boiling ethnic melting pot: No wonder New York was such a great place for movies in the seventies. Though Joseph Sargent's 1974 thriller, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three , was not of the quality of Serpico or Taxi Driver , it holds up as a flavourful, punchy thriller.

John Godey's novel about four gunmen who seize a subway car's passengers for ransom was the basis of a blackly comic portrait of early seventies' New York as a bad-tempered mess of a city. The joke is that survival skills are so well-honed even a lowly transit official (Walter Matthau) can outwit an icy British criminal mastermind, played by Robert Shaw. In Reservoir Dogs , Quentin Tarantino paid homage to Pelham 's device of hijackers who refer to each other with colour-coded aliases (Mr. Brown, Mr. Grey, Mr. Blue and Mr. Green). The film was also remade as a 1998 television movie with Vincent D'Onofrio and Edward James Olmos.

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The new version, directed by Tony Scott and written by Brian Helgeland ( L.A. Confidential ), tries to update the social milieu with references to post-9/11 fears, Iraq War vets and swindling Wall Street high rollers. James Gandolfini, for instance, offers a witty turn as an independent mayor with embarrassing divorce problems, conflating Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. But it's a struggle. From the seventies to the naughts, downtown New York suffered a loss of civic personality, as its image changed from working-class funk to one of corporate professionalism.

The new movie, appropriately, is an efficiently engineered piece of studio product, enjoyable enough at times, but with an unmistakable assembly-line quality. Manhattan is less of a character here than a backdrop for director Tony Scott's whirling camera work and stuttering montage sequences.

In thrillers such as Enemy of the State and Déjà Vu , Scott's image bombardment suited the atmosphere of high-tech paranoia. Here, his busy dice-and-spin style often feels superfluous to what's essentially a dramatic dialogue between two men in confined spaces, the hostage-taker in a subway car, and a negotiator at the control centre.

They're played by Denzel Washington and John Travolta and the most entertaining aspect of the new movie is the way the two actors bear down into character parts and engage in a rattling back-and-forth exchange.

In the earlier film, Walter Matthau played the hostage-negotiating transit cop as a gregarious grump, more or less the embodiment of working-class New York. Matthau's first name, Walter, has been appropriated for Washington's character, Walter Garber, but not much else remains. Washington's character is a working-class Joe who rose through the ranks until he reached executive level - before screwing up. Now he's busted down to lowly dispatcher pending an investigation. He has the bad luck to pick up a call from Ryder (John Travolta) and is reluctantly thrown into the role of the city's negotiator.

Washington is bespectacled and carrying extra weight in his cheeks and around his belly, a physical manifestation of his middle-aged resignation. During most of the movie, he is forced to endure the insults and condescension of everyone around him, from his hostile supervisor to a suspicious New York cop (John Turturro), who thinks Walter might be in on the heist. When Ryder, on the other end of the radio, learns that he's dealing with a fellow bad apple, he almost shrieks with glee, and insists that Garber is his point man for the negotiations and money delivery.

With his seventies' porn-star Fu Manchu mustache and greased back hair, Travolta looks as though he stepped out of the original movie. Initially, his performance feels over the top, but it modulates as the movie progresses. Unlike Shaw's ice-veined manipulator, Ryder's a volatile braggart who plays head games and makes capricious, violent decisions. There is talk of his Catholic fatalism (as if screenwriter Helgeland reference-checked themes of seventies' New York movies), which is more about adding surface shading than actual depth, before his character's background is gradually revealed.

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Given the movie's sense of calculation, the moments where it comes up short are hard to understand. A teenager's laptop sends images of the robbers out on the Internet, but the subplot does little except add a new grainy camera texture for Scott's palette. Ryder's fellow hijackers are underdeveloped, leaving Luis Guzman, as the former subway motorman, utterly anonymous under his disguise. Most disappointing is the new film's reluctance to even attempt to match the ingenuity of the original movie's celebrated one-two punch ending.

The best thing the new Pelham can offer in compensation is a spinning panorama of midtown gridlock and a glance at an iconic yellow cab with the tourist board "Made in New York" motto on its rooftop sign. "Manufactured in New York" would be more like it.

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