The complaint that Hollywood remakes movies because of a lack of originality doesn't apply to The Taking of Pelham 123.
It's probably safe to say that not many people remember the original 1974 thriller about a subway train being kidnapped — as good as it was and with a cast that included Walter Matthau as a Manhattan transit cop chasing the hijackers.
So director Tony Scott seems to have a new remake formula — choosing movies that hardly anyone knew existed. Scott amps everything that made the first movie into a model of '70s cinematic grit, while toning down its racial and sexual epithets for more sensitive audiences.
But the plot still hums like the third rail of a subway track, a deadline drama mostly taking place under the Big Apple, which can't be underestimated for subconscious suspense. After 9/11, the thought of anyone bringing New York to a standstill is a throat-grabber.
The stakes are higher in the new version — $1 million per hostage, rather than that amount for an entire trainload in 1974 — and the path is more twisted to accommodate the Internet age. There's also the foot-dragging demand for more complex characters if they're played by superstars. Can't spend $20 million to hire Denzel Washington then hand him Matthau's one-dimensional role.
Instead, Washington plays Walter Garber, a subway dispatcher unlucky enough to be on duty when train No. 123 is commandeered. The demotion in rank for the hero's role makes him more vulnerable, especially when the villain locates a weakness in Walter's unflappable calm while handling radio negotiations. It's a time-draining subplot emphasized only because a two-time Oscar winner plays Walter.
Meanwhile, the bad guy role that Robert Shaw played has been juiced to suit John Travolta's stardom. Travolta obviously relishes the chance to play evil again but hedges his bet by making it as amiable as his Pulp Fiction killer.
Screenwriter Brian Helgeland's expansion of John Godey's novel and the first movie doesn't end there. Choice roles are provided to James Gandolfini as an unnamed New York mayor who'd rather finish his term without such a crisis, and John Turturro as an FBI negotiator suspiciously viewing Walter's radio chemistry with Ryder. There's also a detour into paying the ransom that evolves into a run-of-the-mill car crash sequence. It's exciting but unnecessary.
But those complaints only matter if The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (as 1974's was titled) matters to you at all. Without a comparative source to invite disappointment, The Taking of Pelham 123 will be considered one of the summer's best thrill rides that doesn't co-star dinosaurs, aliens or wizards. It may even inspire viewers to revisit or discover the original, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.