2009 | Director: Tony Scott (“True Romance,” “Crimson Tide”) | Writer: Brian Helgeland (“Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” “Conspiracy Theory”)
Among the things that made the original “The Taking of Pelham 123” such a distinct heist film was the unmistakable presence of Walter Matthau, whose droopy appearance and schlubby persona made him the perfect lead for such an oddly-proportioned movie; clothed in one of the more hideous suits 1974 money can buy, Matthau’s Lt. Zachary Garber is first seen sleeping on the job before his character is introduced via a series of uncouth insults to a group of visiting Japanese businessmen, setting him up as an unlikely opponent for a criminal mastermind. By contrast, Tony Scott’s 2009 remake version of the character, Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), is far too capable, intelligent, and, despite the weight gain, attractive to come across as any sort of underdog; without that intriguing cat-and-mouse hook, the new “Pelham” is forced to rely on its screenplay to carry it home, and it’s just not up to the task.
The plot stays nearly the same: a subway train leaving Pelham Station at 1:23 PM in New York City is stopped and held, along with its passengers, for ransom by a team of determined criminals led by Ryder (John Travolta), a foul-mouthed thug with a psychopathic twinkle in his eye. Ryder informs Garber, who happens to be working dispatch for the subway that day, that if 10,000,000 bucks, cash money, aren’t delivered to them in an hour, hostages will be executed. Mucking up the works are a nervous accomplice (Luis Guzman), an ineffective hostage negotiator (John Turturro), and the politically impotent Mayor of NYC (James Gandolfini).
Most people remember Robert Shaw in the antagonist role in the original, and rightly so: his glassy-eyed calm at the specter of death gave that movie its frightening backbone—his was truly a man who cared little for human life, following only some hidden motivation that made his character a creepy wild card, and the perfect foil for Matthau’s cynical transit cop. Luckily, Travolta does only one thing well as an actor, and that’s play crazy, meaning his Ryder isn’t much of a drop-off as far as bad guys go. Washington’s character, on the other hand, is much more fleshed-out, but it just doesn’t feel necessary in his role, and especially since, just as in the original, Scott’s “Pelham” flounders in the third act.
The main malefactor here isn’t Scott, surprisingly, despite his typically seizure-inducing visuals and bombastic musical cues; no, the real culprits are screenwriters Brian Helgeland and an uncredited David Koepp, who stick far too closely to the staid conclusion of the 1974 film instead of using their creative license to switch things up and twist the plot to a more unique outcome. The new “Pelham” isn’t a bad movie by any means, but it isn’t memorable, either, stalling somewhere on the scale between boring and mediocre. Perhaps it might not seem so to those who haven’t experienced the story in any of its previous incarnations, but to fans of Matthau’s grumbling flatfoot and Robert Shaw’s mastermind, the worst filmic sin committed by Scott’s re-imagining is that of laziness.
Rating: Two of Five Stars