Whether it’s movies or songs, the way to take something old and make it new is to keep what worked the first time and add personal, relevant touches that both a new audience and the original artists would appreciate. My problem with director Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 is that he tries very hard to make the story something it isn’t and almost derails this subway hostage thriller.
As in the original, a meek New York City subway control worker (Denzel Washington) has the worst day of his life when he finds the train of the title seized by a trigger-happy terrorist (John Travolta) who wants his demands met or he and his crew will terminate every passenger aboard. The original film, which starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, was a suspenseful cat and mouse game between criminal and everyman, with a killer final scene. The remake is faithful until the third act, which borrows heavily from Speed and eliminates the tension and claustrophobic setting by constantly cutting outside of the subway to scenes of smashing cars that play like Fast & Furious outtakes.
Scott directed Top Gun and True Romance and knows how to make a great action movie, but his style over the past few years has become like Michael Bay on Redbull, with aggressively shaky camera work, strobe light editing, color filters and random blasts of the soundtrack that scream, “in your face, moviegoer!” You won’t be bored, but his overdone approach is distracting and irritating.
The performances are what keep the movie together, starting with Washington’s masterful underplaying, countered perfectly by Travolta’s livewire, flamboyant performance. Their give-and-take scenes are so riveting, you may forget that their characters are almost never in the same place together and are talking to one another through speakerphones. Washington can play cool and driven, but it’s enjoyable to watch him play someone so vulnerable, while Travolta is, again, a terrific villain. James Gandolfini gives an enjoyable performance as the flustered but camera-ready Mayor, but John Turturro, playing a compassionate, no-nonsense cop, almost steals the movie; he and Washington are frequent collaborators in Spike Lee films and all of the Denzel/Turturro scenes really crackle.
The screenplay succeeds when it sticks to the basics but stumbles when the action moves out of the initial setting, piles on needless, silly uses of profanity and dumbed-down storytelling (just in case you missed it, someone actually asks what Pelham 123 is).
Scott’s determination to make every audience member cross-eyed and deaf eclipses how good he is with actors. Stick with the milder but far better original. It may lack Denzel and Travolta, but you won’t be reaching for the Advil when it’s over. MTW