Predictably ratcheted up a few notches from the original 1974 film and cloaked in contemporary sociological relevance, "The Taking of Pelham 123" is an efficiently reworked version of a tense, ticking-clock suspense story. More than anything a fascinating portrait of how much New York has changed in 35 years, the film delivers the goods in excitement and big-star charisma, with the contrasting low-key and cranked-up acting styles of Denzel Washington and John Travolta playing off one another nicely. Comparatively low-tech thriller looks to hijack solid-to-strong returns for Sony before the tentpoles take over most of the nation's screens.
First adaptation of John Godey's novel is a minor classic in the early-'70s school of gritty Gotham crime yarns. Directed by Joseph Sargent and written by Peter Stone, it pitted Walter Matthau's sardonic subway dispatcher against Robert Shaw's cold-blooded mercenary as the latter commandeered a subway train and promised to start killing one hostage per minute unless $1 million in cash was delivered within an hour.
The contrast between the old and new pictures is less interesting as a comparison of styles -- with Tony Scott, you know what you're going to get in terms of heavily worked images and blaring soundtrack -- than as one of society. In the early '70s, as reflected in "Pelham," the city looked grungy to the point of dilapidation, verging on political meltdown (the portrait of a sickly mayor who just wants to hide in bed is jaw-dropping) and dominated ethnically by Jews and Italians.
This time around, the transit system's central control HQ is as high-tech as a NASA command post, local authorities are tight knots of anxious professionalism and the population is a rainbow coalition come to fruition. Communication is also a whole lot better -- even if there's still no wireless service on the subway -- and the casual racism and sexism of some of the characters in the original are mostly gone.
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