Film Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Although John Travolta and Denzel Washington keep things compelling, this retooled ’70s vehicle never gets up to speed.

That semi-classic 1974 subway heist thriller starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw—as opposed to the inferior 1998 TV movie with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio—has been given a smartly streamlined overhaul while still remaining faithful to the original blueprint.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (writing out the numbers just doesn't work in the digital age) boasts a smart cast headed by Denzel Washington and John Travolta and a literate Brian Helgeland script that avoids the sort of broad stereotyping found in the original.
Yet, curiously, despite the ever-energetic Tony Scott at the throttle, the sleek new edition isn't as transporting as it should have been. Even with the plot's built-in ticking clock, the film relinquishes the tautly calibrated pace in the third act, never to get completely back on track.

Still, watching a pair of pros such as Washington and Travolta playing a particularly astute game of cat-and-mouse can be persuasive, and those who prefer their summer movies to have a little grown-up substance along with the effects should ensure that the Columbia release arrives at the solid mid-figure platform.

Set in a post-9/11, pre-Recession New York City, Helgeland's script has returned to the original 1973 John Godey novel for inspiration while playing up the cagey battle of wits between an everyman subway dispatcher (Washington, in the Matthau role) and the rage-filled white-collar criminal (Travolta, taking over from Shaw) who masterminds the hostage-taking siege.

He demands $10 million in exchange for the safety of the subway car's passengers (a cool $9 million more than ’74's asking price), and, if the ransom isn't delivered within one hour, a passenger will be executed each minute past the time limit.

Director Scott, marking his fourth collaboration with Washington, is very much in his high-speed, amped-up element here, but while he certainly knows how to make a movie move (with notable assist by his frequent collaborator, editor Chris Lebenzon), that classic cat-and-mouse construct proves to be an obstruction.

Because the bulk of those extensive Washington-Travolta exchanges aren't conducted face-to-face, Scott is forced to compensate for his action elsewhere, and some of those sequences—like an out-of-control money run—feel distractingly manufactured.

But though the end result yields the stop-and-start rhythms of a local train rather than the quickening momentum of an express, it's still a treat to see Travolta stretch as an effective, vengeance-seeking bad guy and Washington gamely piling on the sedentary pounds to play a flawed character quietly driven by his own specific motivations.

Terrific, too, is a supporting cast including James Gandolfini as the city's colorful, Michael Bloomberg-esque mayor, and John Turturro as a cool customer of an NYPD hostage negotiator—a role that didn't exist in the first Pelham.

-Nielsen Business Media