In Theaters: The Taking of Pelham 123

Movieline Score:

The makers of The Taking of Pelham 123 maintain their film is not a remake of the 1974 classic featuring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. That's smart. Instead, by pointing back to novelist John Godey's original thriller about a New York subway car hijacking, they borrow the more malleable of two sources -- an enduring tale of a city completely unable to reconcile the far ends of its sprawling ambition. That's a place where stars Denzel Washington and John Travolta can run fantastically wild, and where director Tony Scott can once again showcase both his talent and his limitations in attempting to harness them.

At least he can command a helicopter shot, the movies' millionth amber-hued panorama of Manhattan that opens Pelham with a shock of contemporary flair. Scott shakes away any '70s-era nostalgia within a few frames, with Jay-Z replacing David Shire's propulsive jazz-funk intro and an awful, strobe-y slo-mo smearing a few ghostly figures awaiting the 6 train at Grand Central. Among them: Travolta, armed and glowering as a bandit who soon chooses "Ryder" as his nom de infamy. His crack deputies enact their plan, taking over the train's lead car and everyone in it.

Lucky (or unlucky; that nuance arises here often) MTA dispatcher Walter Garber notices the aberration on the tracks, soon fielding the call that ignites the city's most grave hostage drama ever: Ryder wants $10 million for the bunch, or he'll start unloading bullets into them in an hour. As Garber, Washington shows why he's long led Scott's slum-ensemble elite: He's the only one who can make reasonably complex men out of otherwise disposable jerks. Good at his job but not nimble enough to outrun his past, he supplants the police negotiator (John Turturro) when Ryder prefers to hear a little more of himself in the man on the other end of the mic. Which still doesn't keep Travolta from barking lines like, "Get the fuck off the radio and notify the mayor, motherfucker!", but hey, new era, remember?

Their rapport (along with wi-fi in the subway -- another 21st-century, only-in-New York plot contrivance) does build to at least one blisteringly great radio showdown, handled by Scott with uncharacteristic directness amid all the swerving camerawork and toneless violence. Thus begets Garber's motivation to think like an outlaw, even catch an outlaw, and Pelham really takes off. James Gandolfini's fussy, weary mayor arrives with both biting post-9/11 rejoinders ("I left my Giuliani suit at home") and audience-friendly clarity; "Why didn't we just send a helicopter for the money?", he asks as a police cruiser speeds from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan, loaded with cash. Turturro coaches his MTA protégé with characteristic aplomb.

If you've seen Joseph Sargent's original adaptation, you'll have an idea of what happens next, just updated as a referendum on greed, celebrity, terrorism, and bureaucracy. The simple pleasures of Walter Matthau's "Gesundheit" are long gone, traded in for monologues about ass models and prison bitches. Nevertheless, Scott's classlessness hardly reflects a lack of ambition; Pelham is the most logistically mind-blowing New York film since Sidney Lumet's epic Prince of the City, which shot in over 100 locations in 1980-81. Will Smith might have hunted deer in Times Square in I Am Legend, but even he probably couldn't have rerouted a Brooklyn-bound 6 train to the Queens-bound 7 platform as seen here.

Even Travolta's tattooed, cascading savagery grew on me after a while, making Ryder's introduction to Garber somehow both tender and corrosive, a portrait of reckless, desperate villainy. And as both they and the film escape the confines of the subway, their volatility propels Pelham through a crackerjack third act that finally transcends the arena of guilty pleasures. As the characters (including New York itself) chase some kind of redemption, so, too, does Scott, who also knows a thing or two about being the bad guy capable of anything. For once, he's tapped his evil blockbuster genius for good. Whatever you want to call the results in relation to their '70s predecessor is fine -- just think twice before calling it inferior. RATING: 7.5