Another Hollywood Remake Derails In 'Pelham'

Denzel Washington in 'Pelham' i

Another day at the office: In the role once played by Walter Matthau, Denzel Washington stars as a subway dispatcher forced into hostage negotiations. Rico Torres/Columbia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Rico Torres/Columbia Pictures
Denzel Washington in 'Pelham'

Another day at the office: In the role once played by Walter Matthau, Denzel Washington stars as a subway dispatcher forced into hostage negotiations.

Rico Torres/Columbia Pictures

Hollywood has remade another old movie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and dishonored its memory.

That's not to say the 1974 original was a masterpiece. Joseph Sargent's New York subway-hijacking thriller was broad and artless and pushed its ethnic characters in your face, as if to say, "What makes New York New York is we play our stereotypes to the hilt!"

Still, a lot of people — including me — remember it with affection. It was of its era. Pelham was filmed in the streets and tunnels of the city at its dirtiest and most anarchic, and the mixture of ethnic humor and cold killing was somehow apt.

The script was written by Peter Stone, whose background was in comedy, and this was a New York Jewish comedy writer's take on his beloved metropolis going scary-crazy, meshugener.

Taking on Robert Shaw's icy, blue-eyed English hijacker was Walter Matthau as a transit cop, at his most rumpled and unflappable: Our hero walked through the melee trying to tamp down the insanity and managed to save the day without firing a shot.

The remake, directed by Tony Scott, is not bad: It's slickly made, and the actors are the best money can buy. But even with its rat-a-tat syncopated aerial shots of the New York skyline, there's little sense of place: It could as easily have been shot in Toronto.

The chief hijacker, called Ryder, is played by John Travolta with tattoos and a Fu Manchu mustache. He's not a terrorist — that would at least have been timely. He's just another movieish extroverted sociopath greedhead. Where Robert Shaw was clipped and spooky, Travolta talks your head off.

The good guy, Garber, is the quiet one, and Denzel Washington wears glasses and affects a humble manner. Garber had worked his way up in the transit system but is under investigation for taking bribes. Demoted to dispatcher, he makes first contact with the hijackers.

The subway car is stopped dead, and Washington is at his desk for most of the film. Yet director Scott keeps The Taking of Pelham 123 in constant motion. The camera circles counterclockwise around Washington. Then it circles clockwise. Then it's back to counterclockwise, this time jumping to close-up. Then it's clockwise again, tighter, the beads of sweat on Washington's brow reflecting the periwinkle blue of the subway command center's monitors — which also tie in nicely with the blue of hostage negotiator John Turturro's shirt and the aquamarine lights of the underground tunnel, dispersed by water droplets on the train car's windows.

Scott clearly doesn't care about locations; he cares about color-coordination and meaningless camera movement. There's a great set-up for a timely gag when the gunmen burst into a train car and a young woman doesn't hear because she's listening to her iPod. I can think of five possible pay-offs, but Scott just drops it and moves on. He has the filmmaker's equivalent of a neurological condition: When he cuts to a new shot, he can't seem to remember the last one.

His condition must have been contagious, since writer Brian Helgeland introduces and drops enough plot points to make another movie. The mayor, played with slippery charm by James Gandolfini, susses out the hijackers' underlying scheme and rushes off to save the day — and that's the last we hear of his plan. A passenger's laptop sends out images of the captors, who don't realize they're on camera — but nothing comes of that. The movie ends with a conventional chase through the city, by which time nothing seems at stake.

Throughout, Ryder has expressed fatalistic indifference over whether he lives or dies, which is supposed to give him an existentialist cool but ends up reinforcing the "so-what?" vibe. Travolta really looks as if he doesn't care — and why should he? Like everyone else behind this soulless remake, he got his money up front.

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