"How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?"
-The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
"I got 99 problems, and a bitch ain't one."
-The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
About as loud as Joseph Sargent's original was lean, Tony Scott's take on The Taking of Pelham 123 is more indebted to his name than its own, all restless shots and relentless cuts, ticking clocks and roving maps, a stream of shouting and shooting and speed-ramping and slow-motion and all that jazz. The conversations are cranked up, and the confrontations are amped up, but to what end? Scott whips out the familiar frame-blurring techniques that have ostensibly served him well in the past, but his flair tends to instead rob a crackerjack crime thriller of an inherent momentum that has served it quite well over the span of almost four decades.
The original's dogged cop, Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), has now simply become Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a disgraced dispatcher who could use the inevitable shot at redemption that volleying with a scheming madman tends to offer. Ryder (John Travolta) has taken monkey-fighting hostages on this Monday-Friday train and he wants $10 million for them now -- a mere million used to do the trick -- and he still wants it within an hour if the MTA and civil servants of NYC hope to prevent any bloodshed. The mayor used to be sick, but now he's just tired, as James Gandolfini finds himself reluctantly facing a scenario that might guarantee him a second term that he doesn't really want if it goes according to plan, and could turn real messy real fast if it doesn't.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (of another Tony Scott remake, Man on Fire, which also starred Washington) adheres fairly faithfully to the plan laid out in the original and (I suspect) in John Godey's novel -- four armed men, one subway car, eighteen hostages, sixty minutes -- to the point where his additions and updates demonstrate just what the story hadn't been missing (read: magical laptops whose battery life and wi-fi reception know no bounds). When a character wonders aloud why someone didn't think to transport the ransom money by helicopter instead of car, it's a remark as clever as it is damning. But no, the cop cars still fly through the streets of NYC, now needing to navigate multiple boroughs instead of facing a mere uptown-to-downtown challenge and now needing to smash and crash several more times when met by a diesel-driven obstacle. Sacrifices made by fellow passengers couldn't be more arbitrary in execution (pardon the pun), and a stab at post-9/11 relevance is sketchy at best, all but relegated to a couple of lines in a helicopter followed by a slightly less blurry shot of the Manhattan skyline.
Denzel is all but playing another cop faced with charges of corruption, the subject of a criminal investigation whose outcome ultimately has no bearing on the plot and allows him to display little range outside of the "just a normal Joe" tactics that he uses opposite the scenery-chewing Travolta. In all fairness, though, everyone's a normal Joe in contrast to Travolta's tattooed-and-Fu-Manchu'd baddie, he so prone to outbursts of profanity that rival the marriage of bad words and worse dialogue in last summer's Death Race (even if I could repeat some of his ripest lines, I wouldn't for fear of not conveying the full effect of their ineffectiveness). It's a performance that ranks significantly closer to his embarrassing efforts in Battlefield Earth to his slickly mannered villains of stuff like Swordfish, Face/Off and Broken Arrow. If anything, Gandolfini reflects the value of personality over plotting that Sargent kept an eye out for, and with his few scenes, he establishes his character's interests and stakes in the situation (and even merits some laughs) more than most of the main monologues manage to.
Thirty-five years after its release, Pelham '74 still stands tall with its sense of rat-a-tat-tat pacing and dry sense of humor (not to mention that sublime score), but even on its own merits in the here and now, Pelham '09 comes up short in terms of thrills and excitement. It's all sizzle and no steak, and by the time Scott's gotten away scot free with your time and money, it's liable to make any moviegoing melonfarmer drop an expletive or two of their own.