‘Pelham’ remake a suspenseful ride

‘Taking of Pelham 1 2 3'

  • Rated R
  • Grade: B+
  • Opens June 12

The New York City of today is a shinier, happier place than it was in 1974 when the original “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" was released. Since then, the graffiti has been scrubbed away, the homeless relocated, the crime rates dropped and, of course, the rents skyrocketed. But despite the lack of grit above ground, the city’s elaborate subway system used by residents across the socioeconomic spectrum is still an ideal location for a suspense thriller. So it’s not a surprise that Hollywood decided to remake “Pelham” for the New York of the 21st century.
The latest version stars Denzel Washington as Walter Garber, an MTA veteran who spent his career patiently working his way up the ranks to high-level administrator, only to be accused of taking a bribe once he reached the top. Demoted, demeaned and denying his guilt all the way, Washington now sits at a desk in the MTA command center while awaiting a decision on his future. But his future is changed forever when he gets a radio call from John Travolta announcing that he and his team of bandits have hijacked the Pelham train. They demand $10 million to be delivered in the next hour or one passenger will die for each minute past the deadline.

Travolta is covered with tattoos, wild with rage and not afraid to kill - or die - to make his point. But he has a soft spot for Washington and refuses to deal with the hostage negotiator (John Turturro) or anyone else. With his suspicious coworkers and the mayor (James Gandolfini) looking on, Washington begins to build a strange bond with Travolta while searching for a way to save the passengers and, possibly, his own reputation.

The original “Pelham” lamented the dire bureaucracy of 1970s New York City as transit cop Walter Matthau, in the Denzel Washington role, hit one ridiculous roadblock after another to obtain the ransom money. The modern version has a grudge more befitting contemporary New York - the little guy versus big money. Washington’s middle class, family man is contrasted with Gandolfini’s slick mayor, in the midst of a sex scandal, who rides the subway for appearances but always has a limousine waiting at street level.

Travolta’s hijacker is constantly picking at Washington’s wounds, shining light on the unfairness of his uphill climb while the rich get richer. And while Travolta awaits his ransom, he is constantly checking the stock market’s reaction to the scenario he has created because, well, that’s where the real money is.

Although it sounds like a plot ripe for Hollywood action overkill, “Pelham” uses an impressive amount of restraint to create what is ultimately a highly suspenseful film. The filmmakers rely on smart dialogue, clever camerawork and fast-paced editing (which can occasionally induce dizziness) to keep the pace up. Ultimately the film chooses depth and character over hollow stunts (although the omission of any substantive female roles in modern New York is mind-boggling). Even with the risk of slightly anticlimactic resolutions, the result is a suspenseful film that keeps you engaged in both the plot and the characters throughout. A triumphant balancing act.