Starring: Denzel Washington & John Travolta
Director: Tony Scott
Surprisingly, in a summer full of action-packed blockbusters, this cracking remake may be the movie to beat for sheer popcorn-chomping thrills. New York City subway system dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington), recently demoted due to charges of bribery, is observing his control screen when he notices an anomaly -- the Pelham 123 has come to a standstill between stops, and the driver is unresponsive. The train has been hijacked by a trigger-happy gang of criminals -- or is that terrorists? -- led by Ryder (Travolta), who's just as quick to crack a joke as he is to execute a hostage with a hasty bullet between the eyes. Ryder wants ten million dollars in one hour, and for every minute the city doesn't deliver, he'll kill another hostage.
The visuals here are vintage Scott, and though the hyper-stylized opening shots of a neck-tattooed Travolta and company getting into place for the big event to the tune of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" (replete with shots of Luis Guzman looking like the long-lost fourth member of Run-DMC) may lead us to suspect that Scott is bordering on self-parody, once the action gets under way about 30 seconds later, there's no mistaking that we're in the hands of a true master. But Scott and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler's deliciously garish visuals aren't the only factors that make this movie a compulsively satisfying bit of summer pulp; Brian Helgeland's screenplay is about as tight as it could get without being written in shorthand, and unexpectedly subdued performances by Washington and Travolta ensure that the not-so-subtle nuances of the characters they portray don't derail the film by shifting our focus away from the rising tensions underground. Of course, anyone who's seen Travolta chew scenery as a bad guy knows he has a penchant for going over the top and another mile up, but while he's certainly having a blast as the F-bomb-dropping, stock-ticker-obsessed Ryder, he still feels dialed back from the cartoonish criminal excess of Swordfish and Face/Off. His wild-eyed antics give the film some of its funniest, and most terrifying, moments. Likewise, Washington's restrained performance as the disgraced Garber allows us to forget we're watching an Oscar-winning Hollywood heavyweight and simply identify with the character -- a crucial factor in keeping us actively involved in the story.
From the cast to the crew, everyone involved seems to be firing on all cylinders, though it's Helgeland whose contributions make this retread an unmitigated success. Considering what New York City has been through since Godey's original novel came out in the early '70s, the central concept of the movie may be even more relevant now than it was 30 years ago. By taking some well-placed jabs at the media, and pondering the difference between terrorism and unrepentant crime-for-profit, Helgeland innovates within a familiar framework and turns it into something fresh, vital, and timely. (106 mins.)
My Rating: **1/2