(director: Tony Scott; screenwriters: Brian Helgeland/based on the novel by John Godey; cinematographer: Tobias Schliessler; editor: Chris Lebenzon; music: Harry Gregson-Williams; cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Garber), John Travolta (Ryder), John Turturro (Camonetti), Luis Guzmán (Phil Ramos), Michael Rispoli (John Johnson), James Gandolfini (Mayor), Frank Wood (Police Commissioner Sterman), John Benjamin Hickey (Deputy Mayor LaSalle), Gary Basaraba (Jerry Pollard), Ramon Rodriguez (Delgado), Aunjanue Ellis (Mrs. Garber); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Todd Black/Mr. Scott/Jason Blumenthal/Steve Tisch; Columbia Pictures; 2009)

“It’s Hollywood at its best in deflecting the audience with gloss so they don’t notice the thriller’s emptiness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

British-born Tony Scott (“Déjà Vu”/”Man on Fire”/”Domino”), filmmaker Ridley’s brother, known for his bombastic action films, jump-cuts, freeze-frames, close-ups, and dazzling aerial shots, directs this update on John Godey’s 1973 best-seller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three that was the source for the excellent 1974 film version that starred Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau. Of note, there was a terrible 1998 TV movie version with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. Needless to say this post-9/11 terrorist-like heist film, Pelham’s third version, is another unnecessary remake since the original did all it could with the pulp material. But Scott and writer Brian Helgeland do alter bits of the subway hostage tale and make good use of the modern day CGI technology with some effective low-tech special effects. With computers being so common today in both the workplace and with even train passengers carrying laptops, these modern conveniences become a great part of the story and give the film another dimension.

The filmmakers make this thrill ride energetic and watchable–but also sentimental, too calculated, contrived and disposable. It doesn’t have the same freshness as the original, which became a cult classic, even if it gets the acting right (the match of wits in a cat-and-mouse game between a volatile John Travolta and a restrained Denzel Washington has its spicy moments) and its reworking of the story with an updated Wall Street subplot makes sense (some might consider commodity traders more dangerous than either terrorists or hijackers). But this is just another blockbuster mainstream action film, where there’s nothing memorable. It’s Hollywood at its best in deflecting the audience with gloss so they don’t notice the thriller’s emptiness.

Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is in the control center acting as a train dispatcher after being demoted from his supervisor’s job and facing a possible suspension with the NYC Transit Authority for alleged bribery, and is confronted with a hijacked train — the Pelham 123 — that left Pelham Bay at 1:23 p.m. only to be stopped at Grand Central Station by a trigger-happy gang of four men led by a menacing psychopath with a Fu Manchu mustache and a prison neck tattoo named Ryder (John Travolta). Walter learns at 2:13 p.m. from radio communication with Ryder, his alias, that the gang wants the disgraced lame duck fictionalized wealthy mayor (James Gandolfini), an amusing takeoff on Mayor Bloomberg, to cough up ten million dollars in one hour from the city treasury, and for every minute the city doesn’t deliver, he’ll kill another hostage of the 18 taken. Henchman Ramos (Luis Guzmán), a disgraced former motorman just released from prison, takes over for the slain motorman, who was killed because the NYPD police negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) took over the negotiations and Ryder wants to only deal with Walter and by killing the hostage shows the authorities he means business. Thereafter Walter is the sole hostage negotiator, with Camonetti advising (a change from the original).

Things move along at a brisk pace as the underground transfer of the money is negotiated, but Scott is not satisfied to just let the story play out without ratcheting up the violence and the action sequences, and the paunchy ‘everyman’ civil servant has to go beyond his believable capabilities to save the city as an action hero. But the juiced-up pic looks OK, even if it only is superficially real in showing how the city has changed since 1974 and its third act derails due to too much editing, too much technical gimmickry, unconvincing heroics, and too many stiff characters in the street scenes who act as if maneuvered by puppet strings.

REVIEWED ON 6/17/2009 GRADE: C+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/