John Travolta plays a brawny, brainy thug, chugging down New York streets with into the bowels of the city with a grim, directed bravado that's the opposite of his gleeful swagger 32 years ago in Saturday Night Fever. Denzel Washington plays the subdued, out-of-shape subway supervisor who improbably becomes the chief negotiator for the city when Travolta and his gang commandeer a subway cab and two passenger cars and hold hostages for $10 million.
That rat and cat game isn't enough reason to see The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. It's a remake of the effective 1974 suspense film that starred Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau in, respectively, the rough equivalent of Travolta's and Washington's roles.
The earlier movie, shot through with mid-'70s decay, plays like a time capsule spiked with amphetamines. The new one, also shot on real locations under difficult circumstances, captures nothing distinct about Manhattan. It may get enough details right to satisfy subway buffs. For most audiences it's a slog through a generic urban fun house.
Director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland try to pump new beer into old kegs. Travolta's gleeful villain, Ryder, is a financial whiz with a grudge against the city that sent him to the slammer. Washington's reluctant hero, Walter Garber, has been demoted because his bosses suspect he took a bribe from a manufacturer. There's potential intrigue and involvement in seeing how the bad guy probes the good guy's background, and vice versa.
Scott must love his actors (he's worked repeatedly with Washington), but his hyperactive techniques reduce their performances to needlework. Travolta sparks some laughs and shocks with his quick, surprising braggadocio and Washington wins some sympathy for the genuine modesty of his character.
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