The opening credits of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 zip and zing and bump to the beat of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” Emulating the rhythms of the subway, shots of tracks and doors, passengers and conductors slide across the screen and slam up on one another, giving way to blurrily odious close-ups of the villains — men with facial hair and dark glasses. Whap-smack-creak-and-squeal. It’s a gloriously visceral and also heady business, enhanced by the frankly brilliant track.
And then director Tony Scott’s name comes on screen, the credits end, and the movie begins. It is, to say the least, a letdown.
Nothing if not self-aware, this update of Joseph Sargent’s 1974 thriller begins by rearranging the class dynamics. No longer is the primary throw-down between a transit cop (Walter Matthau) and a tweedy gentleman crook (Robert Shaw). These iconic opponents are transformed here into an MTA administrator (Denzel Washington as Garber) and John Travolta’s Ryder, a heavily tattooed and pissed-off Wall Street trader-cheater (a phrase that’s probably redundant in today’s environment). The film reinforces Garber’s working-man credentials by making him recently demoted to his former position as a trains monitor (seating him before a bank of screens that recalls Washington’s position in Déjà Vu), owing to an ongoing bribery investigation (and in this, he rather resembles the cop Washington played in Inside Man). As such, he’s the one who “takes the call” from the hijackers, thus initiating what will become a life-changing relationship with Ryder.
It’s not a terrible thing that the traditional good-bad split is complicated in this relationship, at least from Garber’s end. (Ryder is straight-up bad, and unhinged to boot.) And it’s a decided plus that Washington has hold of this complication, as he makes compellingly visible Garber’s thinking processes, whether seated at his desk before a humongous digital board displaying train movements, not quite explaining the situation to his earnest wife (Aunjanue Ellis) on the other end of a phone call or pushing a cart loaded with the $10 million ransom (220 pounds) down a subway tunnel. His burdened shoulders receding into the dark back of the frame say as much as his face in ponderous close-up. Garber is a harried, wily guy, and his choices, small and large, take visible tolls.
Garber’s charisma and intelligence are duly appreciated by NYPD hostage negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro), who advises from the sidelines when Ryder insists in speaking only with the trainman. Again, the film sets up a potential tension among men with differing areas of authority and expertise (cop, city worker, Wall Streeter), but doesn’t get much beyond the set-up. As much as Garber draws sympathy and interest, Ryder repels. And that makes the contest more predictable than it needs to be. Wacky, twitchy, and chatty, he gives up the usual sorts of information (he’s into confessions, he spent time in a cell, he believes he’s superior) and so provides the team trying to thwart him with essential ammunition.
It helps that one of the hostages is a kid with a laptop connected to his girlfriend’s webcam, so when the machine is pitched to the subway car floor, it can offer an aptly tilted view of the thugs with guns and the frightened passengers: the trick of access in a train tunnel is not really explained by Ryder’s ostensible technical wizardry, a fundamental component of his actual plot, which — unlike Hans Gruber’s in Die Hard — is as mundane as his apparent plot.
Like Hans, Ryder makes use of the presumption of terrorism angle, which predictably makes the city go a little crazy. This doesn’t make rational the crashing of ransom-money-transport cars that punctuates the action — this bit is lifted from the original film, though done up here in noisy and excessive Tony-Scotty-style. As before, the crashes serve as plot-filler and distraction, a point noted by the mayor (James Gandolfini) who has authorized the payment: why, he asks out loud, didn’t they move the money by helicopter? It’s a cute, preemptive kind of aside, revealing that the film knows how silly all this hyper-action is but delivering it just the same.
It also speaks to the movie’s strained efforts to look back and forward at once, reimagining a time when thoughtful local-color, character-driven kinds of movies had a chance in theaters and rejiggering that premise to accommodate current summertime expectations of explosions and fast cuts for their own sake. This is not to say that one moment is better than another. Still, the amalgamation here is unwieldy, partly a function of structure (half the story is above ground, half below) and partly a function of thematic shifting.
If the class differences between Ryder and Garber seem easy moral markers, they are also filtered through other kinds of identifications. When Ryder threatens he’ll make the sexy-voiced Garber his “bitch” in prison, it underlines his yuckiness, but also his sense of humor (he’s been incarcerated and he’s seen the movie). When Garber assures his wife he’ll be home after work, she takes him at his word, her determination to believe him despite and because of her knowledge of his previous deceptions (concerning the bribery charges). While she performs her part admirably, she looks caught in the movie’s unresolvable middle space — inside, above ground, immobile.