Want to know how a city works? Start by watching 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, a primer in which subway hijackers test how long it'll take a million bucks to pass through Gotham's plumbing. Turns out an hour is just enough time to roust the hated mayor out of bed; convince him that $1 million is cheap for the hostages' sure votes; get the Treasury on the horn; and gridlock traffic by wrecking the drop-off car. And yet, in the end, a web of interlocked dysfunction from Gracie Mansion to the Transit Authority defeats the crooks' well-oiled machine.
At the time, the movie didn't connect with audiences except, as legend has it, in cities with subways. Those without may have been less sympathetic — especially at the nadir of Fun City's crime-ridden mid-'70s image crisis, just a year before Ford told NY to drop dead. But in the years after 9/11, helped no doubt by shout-outs in Reservoir Dogs and the Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot," The Taking of Pelham One Two Three took on new life — a parable of punch-clock New Yorkers' surly resilience in the face of aggression.
With this second remake of Pelham (the first was a late-'90s TV rehash starring Edward James Olmos and Vincent D'Onofrio), director Tony Scott turns a presciently post–9-11 movie into an explicitly post–9/11 movie. Make that post–post–9/11: The chief bad guy only looks like a terrorist, when in fact he's an even scarier, more au courant foe — a commodities trader! (Hey, some ticket buyers might actually have sympathy for a terrorist.) But if self-conscious stabs at significance don't sound as much fun as the original's unpretentious caper thrills, that's because they're not.
That's not to say this Pelham never makes it out of the station, even if its near-constant pummeling-by-montage is a losing swap for the '74 Pelham's urbane black humor. If not for that dull TV version a decade ago, which packed all the excitement of buying tokens, it would be tempting to call the basic outline of John Godey's novel indestructible: Four gunmen seize a subway car and its passengers and demand a fortune in one hour, while a transit official, stalling for time, plays head games with the gang's mastermind.
In the original, the transit rep, Garber, was grouchy Walter Matthau, embodying a spirit of sourpuss resistance. His part has been reconceived for Denzel Washington as more of a turning worm, a disgraced official who has been busted back down to the rank and file. He's the poor bastard who picks up a call from the crime's ringleader, Ryder — John Travolta subbing for Robert Shaw's icy Mr. Blue — and becomes his negotiator and eventual cash mule into the tunnels of subterranean Manhattan.
The crackling give-and-take between Travolta — a hair-triggered, showboating Joker whose crimes evidently include swiping the mustache off the Village People's biker — and the smartly low-key Washington gives the new Pelham most of its juice. No other actor makes such an art of modulating his performances from situation to situation than Washington. You can read his character's standing in any situation by his gradations of subservience — whether in the presence of Garber's immediate supervisor or Hizzoner himself (James Gandolfini, a spiky cocktail of Bloomberg's financial savvy and Giuliani's libido) — with his few moments of equal footing reserved for an interrogating officer (a quietly insinuating John Turturro).
On paper, Pelham would appear a good fit for the erratic Scott, whose style has morphed with time and technology into a kind of cubist barrage of image fragments. Synch him up with a techno thriller like Enemy of the State or the recent Déjà Vu, and his ADD direction seems apt, exciting: a manifestation of electronic surveillance culture gone viral, infecting even the movie's editing scheme. In Déjà Vu, he pulled off a car chase — occurring simultaneously in two different time periods — that maybe five other directors in the history of movies could have pulled off with such panache and lucidity, let alone helped conceive.
But Scott applies that technique indiscriminately, feeding projects as diverse (in everything but lousiness) as Domino and Man on Fire into the same woodchipper. Here, Scott's camera acrobatics have so little to do with the events they're recording that they leave hiccups in the movie's momentum. Swoosh! The camera goes flying this way past Denzel! Swoosh! The camera goes sailing the other way. Wheee! It orbits Gandolfini so vertiginously he might as well lean over and smooch Kim Novak. At his most frenetic and least disciplined, Scott doesn't tell the story: He advertises it from shot to shot.
In the original Pelham, director Joseph Sargent's uncluttered direction played up the sweaty-collared confinement of the subway car and the transit office, locking the cops and crooks each in their own pressure cooker. Which marks, oh, the 50th time I've unfavorably compared the remake to the original — the lazy reviewer's default setting, to be sure. But Scott's redo comes up short in almost every regard against the '74 model — against David Shire's brass-knuckled score, against its mugs' gallery of '70s New York character actors, against Peter Stone's serrated script, and certainly against its wordless punchline, beside which the new version's gloppy coda looks sappy indeed. If it's somehow unfair to compare the two, why was The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 even remade?