Although it’s a question that Hollywood often fails to answer, the prevailing mystery with most movie remakes is “Why?” (Besides money, of course, which is the real reason behind just about everything in the film industry.) Tony Scott’s new version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a remake of the 1974 thriller of the (almost) same name (it was called The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), doesn’t quite answer that question from an existential standpoint, but from an aesthetic one, the response comes through loud and clear, literally: Scott brings his trademark scatterbrained, style-plus-style-equals-more-style approach to his take on Pelham, approaching the story in almost the exact opposite fashion from journeyman director Joseph Sargent, who helmed the original. Scott’s Pelham is bombastic, garish and over the top, fitting with the fractured visual approach he’s been taking with his movies since 2004’s headache-inducing Man on Fire.
That one also starred Denzel Washington, who here marks his fourth collaboration with the director. As New York City subway dispatcher Walter Garber, Washington is the calm in the middle of Scott’s storm, even as the director can’t stop his camera from swirling and swooping around his star, cutting to several different angles to jazz up what is essentially a movie about a conversation, between Garber and a sinister man known only as Ryder (John Travolta), who has hijacked the titular subway train and is holding the passengers hostage while demanding $10 million (10 times what Robert Shaw’s bad guy asked for in the original). Scott does his best to turn this back-and-forth into an action movie, adding in gunfights, car chases and a climactic showdown, but it does more to distract from the simple, economical story (which Sargent presented in a straightforward, unfussy manner) than enhance it.
The other problem is that Travolta seems to have lost all bearing as an actor (not exactly news, really) and hams it up like crazy as Ryder, starting with his absurd handlebar mustache and thug-life tattoos, and running all the way through his final moments, daring Washington’s nebbishy office worker to gun him down in broad daylight. For all the weight that Washington brings to his noble pencil-pusher, and all the grandeur that Scott’s hyperactive style attempts to impart to the basic plot, Travolta undermines it by never making Ryder more than a giddy joke. If you can’t buy the menace of the villain, then the whole thing falls apart.
Still, as a disposable thriller, Scott’s Pelham isn’t all that bad. His stylistic excesses have come down from the absurd heights of Man on Fire and 2005’s Domino, although he’s still unable to keep the camera still or resist switching film stocks and exposures seemingly at random. The in-your-face opening-credits sequence (set to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”) is a full-on self-parody, but things settle down from there, thankfully. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland add some extraneous subplots that allow for a face-to-face confrontation between Garber and Ryder, which is less satisfying than the original’s wink of a twist ending (1974 star Walter Matthau was certainly no action hero, thankfully), but does manage to build a bit of suspense. There’s no more justification for the redo than that, and for part of the time, at least, it’s enough.