Back in the 1970s, New Yorkers could perhaps be forgiven for thinking they were at the center of the universe. Half the films released in those days seemed to take place in the Big Apple — and they weren’t filmed in Montréal or Toronto. Watching Dog Day Afternoon, Midnight Cowboy or Taxi Driver is like taking a dip in the murky waters of rude, riotous pre-Giuliani Manhattan. In these films, the crowds on the street typically aren’t faceless extras but a smart-mouthed chorus commenting on the action. Rich and poor, cop and politician and panhandler — the grungy, efficient mass transit tosses everyone together, and everybody’s got an opinion.
The subways of NYC even had their own grungy, efficient thriller: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (1974), in which a gang of miscreants hijacked the titular train and promised to kill a passenger per minute if the city didn’t give them a cool million. In Tony Scott’s new remake, set in present day, head hijacker Ryder (John Travolta) is making the same bloody threats, but now he’s asking for $10 million. (One of his henchmen, dispatched too soon, is Vermont’s own Luis Guzmán.)
Ryder’s contact and eventual nemesis is disgruntled subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), who’s been demoted under suspicion of corruption. But, given who’s playing him, the regular Joe’s transformation into working-class hero is pretty much inevitable.
What’s less certain is that the audience will enjoy any of it. Like David Fincher’s Zodiac, which worked hard to recreate the shaggy quality of 1970s films, this ’70s remake is long, talky and jerkily paced; unlike Zodiac, it doesn’t get under your skin. Scott uses all the modern digital tricks at his disposal, from zooming around the city as if it were a Google map to that alternating slow-mo/fast-mo thing action directors can’t seem to get enough of. It’s fun to watch, but it doesn’t put you in that stopped subway car with the hostages — a scenario that’s every city dweller’s nightmare.
In a modernizing tweak, one of those hostages is a college student with a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection who just happens to be video-chatting with his girlfriend and can give the police a peek inside the captured car. But, rather than building suspense around possible discovery of the hidden webcam, Brian Helgeland’s script asks us to care whether the kid will tell his girlfriend he loves her. It’s a ham-handed substitute for characterization. Garber’s phone conversations with his worried wife — complete with overbearingly cornball music — are even lamer.
All the same, Pelham might have been a serviceable thriller if it weren’t for the Travolta factor. Never subtle, his villain portrayals were once entertaining (Face/Off comes to mind). However, by the fourth or fifth film in which he turned his preening, taunting Danny Zuko charm to evil ends, the whole thing was over.
Here he plays a bad guy who’s complex, at least on paper. Ryder portrays himself as a fraying working man, like Garber, who decided to smash the system. But he drops hints of less plebeian origins, obsessively checking stock prices on his laptop. Although the film’s script probably predates the current chaos on Wall Street, it’s hard not to view the character in that light, with Ryder’s disregard for civil society and furious sense of entitlement embodying the attitude that drove so many financial institutions into the ground. The film raises the intriguing possibility that Ryder’s whole semi-psychotic act is just that — a calculation. But real surprises are out of the question when the performance is pure ham. Maybe someday Travolta will be scary again, but right now he’s in late Dennis Hopper territory.
Pelham could have been truly updated for a post-9/11 New York whose fractious inhabitants have new reasons to trust one another and new reasons not to. But here, the closest we get to a down-and-dirty urban portrait is James Gandolfini as the mayor, sneering that he doesn’t want to step up to the podium and reassure his constituents because “I didn’t wear my Giuliani suit.” If only the whole film had that much inner-borough attitude.