Are Tony Scott’s films actually directed by Google Earth? As in virtually all his work since Enemy of the State, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 incessantly uses whipping-zooming-rotating satellite imagery for transitional effects, one of the myriad ways in which the ADD auteur spazzes up his remake of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 thriller in which Robert Shaw’s ruthless military man took hostages aboard an NYC subway car overseen by Walter Matthau’s transit cop in order to procure a million dollars from the city. In Scott’s do-over, that demand has grown to $10 million, Shaw’s calm, calculating crook has been replaced by John Travolta’s cocky, neck-tattooed villain, and Matthau’s wry hero has become Denzel Washington’s morally compromised desk jockey, a former MTA big shot recently demoted thanks to an ongoing bribery scandal. More than any narrative tweaks, however, this latest Pelham defines itself via its helmer’s trademark aesthetic gimmickry. After beginning with a measured image of the downtown Manhattan skyline encased in an expanding rectangle, the film quickly segues into Tony Scott time, with freeze frames, speed shifts, color filters, Vaseline-smeary images, and excessive cinematographic calisthenics engulfing the screen with dizzying belligerence.
Given the staid nature of its source material (based on John Godey’s original novel), such hyperactivity almost immediately reeks of desperation. Although the primary action is relegated to villain Ryder (Travolta) and do-gooder Walter Garber (Washington) conversing via radio, Scott embellishes their chats with superfluous camera twirls that convey a sense of flamboyant stylistic impulses being barely suppressed. Consequently, when the focus shifts to scenes of cop cars racing to deliver Ryder’s bounty within his inflexible one-hour timeframe, one can just about feel Scott deeply sighing, finally free to pan and cut with wild mescaline-twitchy abandon. Yet upping the commotion quotient doesn’t improve Pelham’s underlying template, in which tension and mystery are stoked by the question of how Ryder and his gun-toting henchmen will escape an underground subway car with their loot, nor does the new characterizations of hero and villain as kindred spirits. This corny, clichéd device is in keeping with most of the film’s silly plotting, which would have us believe that patrolling gunmen wouldn’t notice a laptop (streaming video chat footage!) lying underneath a subway car bench, or that a disgraced hedge fund manager like Ryder—the character’s potential for current-events commentary squandered by Brian Helgeland’s potholed scripting—would carry out this ludicrously over-complicated scheme in the first place.
Luis Guzmán’s nasal strip and James Gandolfini’s mayor stating that he wants to avoid getting sick are Scott’s subtle nods to his predecessor, though his more consistent act of homage involves keeping the proceedings taut but never thrilling. Pelham was, and remains, a story with an intriguing setup and an only so-so payoff, and while the director’s smash-bang-boom treatment certainly attempts to drum up added excitement, the litany of attention-grabbing flourishes prove transparent and, eventually, comical. Less funny is Washington’s continued fondness for toiling away in Scott’s digitized landscapes, the actor largely confined to sitting in a control room (and in front of a giant computer screen) that recalls the time travel HQ of Déjà Vu, his low-key performance well-modulated but incapable of making a dent amid the surrounding sound and fury. Travolta, on the other hand, lets fly with manic, volatile humor and menace that ably matches Scott’s visual/aural mayhem, biting into ugly-witty lines (about Garber: “He’s got a sexy voice, man. He’d be my bitch in prison”) with hard, high-wire gusto. Nonetheless, all flash and no substance makes Pelham a bludgeoning ride, one that would benefit from Scott recognizing that a measure of restraint is nothing to sneeze at.