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The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3

Action-Heavy Remake Scores (Mostly)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

In less than two months, Hollywood has inundated multiplexes with prequels, sequels and reboots (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian , Terminator Salvation). This week, Hollywood returns to form with The Taking of Pelham, 1, 2, 3, a suspenseful, action-heavy remake of the gritty, gripping 1974 hostage drama.

The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 updates the 1974 film and John Godey’s source novel to contemporary New York (with technology and action-heavy scenes as the main differentiators), but keeps the central conflict between Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), here a demoted transit official working as a train dispatcher instead of a lieutenant with the transit authority, and Ryder (John Travolta), here an enigmatic criminal with a hidden agenda instead of the mercenary of the original, who hijacks the “Pelham” train of the title in broad daylight.

Along with Phil Ramos (Luis Guzmán), a disgraced former motorman, and machine gun-toting muscle, Bashkim (Victor Gojcaj) and Emri (Robert Vataj), Ryder extorts the City of New York for $10 million, giving Garber and the outgoing, embattled mayor (James Gandolfini) an hour to deliver the ransom or Ryder and his men will begin killing passengers at the rate of one a minute.

Adapted by Brian Helgeland (Payback, Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) from Godely’s novel, The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3, has little of the character-defining wit (most of it acerbic and caustic, as befitting harried New York City transit workers) and, as expected, ups the profanity (often to comic effect). On the plus side, Helgeland adds friction in the verbal duel between the African-American Garber (played by Walter Matthau in the original) and his tattooed antagonist Ryder (originally played by Robert Shaw). Helgeland gives Garber and Ryder backstories missing from the original, backstories that become increasingly important to the conflict between the two characters.

Not surprisingly, given Tony “bigger and louder is always better” Scott’s (Déjŕ vu, True Romance, Top Gun) involvement, the remake ups the action quotient, extending a key sequence and tacking on a late-film car chase scene where Scott gets to indulge the gimmicks that have become, for better or for worse (all too often, for worse), his filmmaking “style'". The two-set premise (i.e., the rail dispatch center, the train car), however, saves migraine-prone moviegoers from the excesses of Scott’s visual style.

Whatever its other strengths or weaknesses, The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 depends primarily on the performances of its lead actors to keep moviegoers at least mildly interested in the outcome. For Garber, Washington relies on a familiar understated, naturalistic performing style (including pauses and repetition), but he’s at best in an original scene where, stalling for time to save a passenger’s life, he’s forced into making an incriminating confession. While Travolta has the larger-than-life role as Ryder, a desperate man with a plan, he keeps his usual physical tics and gestures (mostly) under control. When Travolta stumbles, it’s due to Helgeland’s profanity-laced dialogue and not to his performance style or lack of talent. The occasional stumble, however, isn’t enough to derail The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3.