Released in 1974, the original Pelham was a cracking thriller that pitted Walter Matthau’s grouchy New York Transit Authority cop against Robert Shaw’s ruthless crook in a tense and mordant battle of wits.
The set up of the new movie is the same as before: four gunmen hijack a crowded New York subway train – Pelham 123 – and demand a huge ransom to be paid within the hour ($10million, inflation-adjusted from the original’s $1million). Fail to meet the deadline and one passenger will die for every minute that the money is late.
Instead of the standoff, however, between Matthau’s cop and Shaw’s gang leader ‘Mr Blue’ (his cohorts were ‘Grey’ ‘Green’ and Brown’, which is where Tarantino nicked the idea for Reservoir Dogs’ colour-coded criminals), the remake sets Denzel Washington’s diffident train dispatcher against John Travolta’s volatile hijacker.
Brian Helgeland’s script gives both men back-stories. Washington’s desk jockey Walter Garber (the name a nod to Matthau) is a transit executive who’s been demoted to train dispatcher pending the outcome of a bribery investigation, and Travolta’s ‘Ryder’… well, his past takes a while longer to emerge, by which time the duo are deep into the mind games that made the original so gripping.
“Off the rails”
So far, so good. The fidgety Scott, however, was never going to be content with a duel of verbal thrust and parry between antagonists stuck on opposite ends of a phone – Travolta’s hijacker on the train; Washington the poor sap in the subway control centre. No, you can tell Scott is just itching to whip things into a frenzy – with the result that the movie goes completely off the rails.
You can pinpoint the exact moment The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 falls apart. With the clock ticking away, Washington’s unassuming everyman strides towards a waiting helicopter, and takes time out to conduct a tender phone conversation with his wife (hurry up, man, the hostages are about to die!). Then we’re up in the air (great view, Tony), Denzel’s on his way to becoming an action hero (groan) and Scott is going to get the chance to indulge in car chases and shoot-outs (even bigger groan).
All this means there’s no room for the original film’s quirky supporting characters. Save for the leads, the only figures who make much of an impression are John Turturro’s canny NYPD negotiator and James Gandolfini’s stinking-rich mayor. The stars do play well off each other – Washington, packing a few extra pounds, holds back, while a pumped-up Travolta, sporting prison-inmate tattoos and porn-star moustache, goes deliriously over the top. Travolta describes the new film as “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three on steroids”. On steroids?! Is it any surprise the movie’s a train wreck?
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 released 31st July.