Friday, June 12, 2009

Updating a wild subway ride

Credit screenwriter Brian Helgeland with a shrewd updating of 1974's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Adding a variety of new intrigues and giving the movie's villainy a topical spin qualify as improvements over the version that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw.

This time out, Denzel Washington and John Travolta square off, Washington as a subway dispatcher and Travolta as a ruthless criminal who hijacks a subway train, holding passengers hostage in hopes of obtaining a $10-million payoff. If you watch the 1974 movie again (or for the first time) you'll find some excitement in director Joseph Sargent's handling of the same basic scenario, but you'll also notice that lots of the move's attempts at humor have gone stale.

Director Tony Scott ("Man on Fire," "Crimson Tide" and "True Romance") can be accused of following a credo that insists that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So it's no surprise that the car crashes are more spectacular and the action, stronger in this spiffed-up helping of high-speed tension.

Washington seems to have bulked up and de-glamorized himself for the role. He's playing a transit authority worker who calls himself a civil servant and regular guy. The script gives Washington's character wrinkles that the Matthau character didn't have, adding a welcome degree of complexity to the proceedings. Washington's not nearly as composed as Matthau, and Travolta makes it seem as if he might veer out of control at any moment, giving his character a loose-cannon quality that's weirder than anything Shaw suggested.

The movie lacks the satirical kick of the original, a slant that was embodied in what, at the time, seemed a truly whacky premise. Back in the 1970s when airline hijacking was more prominently featured in the news, the idea of hijacking a subway qualified as preposterous, a goof on the whole notion of where unexpected dangers might lurk. Lacking that kind of crazy punch, the remake tends to come off as slightly hollow, a summer movie built more around competence than conviction.

I'd hardly call the original a classic, and this one isn't either, but it's an entertaining enough thriller that updates the original in mostly interesting ways -- once you buy into the screenplay's more outlandish leaps. Scott makes sure that there are some brutal murders here, presumably to augment a sense of realism, but "Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" isn't about believability; it's about ... well... not much of anything. But then the first movie wasn't about much of anything either.

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