Based on the 1973 novel by Morton Freedgood (writing as John Godfrey), this thriller, filmed previously in 1974 and 1998, finds an NYC subway car hijacked by thugs threatening to kill a passenger a minute if they don’t get $10,000,000 in an hour. Brian Helgeland’s new, gizmo-heavy script has alpha thug Ryder (John Travolta, with conspicuously dyed hair, brows and handlebar) striking up a strangely chatty repartee with Garber (Denzel Washington, paunchy, bespectacled, stubbornly handsome), the MTA employee who first takes Ryder’s demands and thereafter becomes the only negotiator Ryder’s willing to deal with. Discovering that Garber stands accused of accepting a bribe, Ryder apparently identifies with what he views as Garber’s victimization at the hands of an unjust corporate and/or social hierarchy. At one point Ryder gets especially vulnerable and shares a traumatic memory of getting shit on by an Icelandic sled dog while on a date with an ass model. Their interplay and its macho—at times homoerotic—sense of connection are, needless to say, deeply silly.
But Tony Scott is, to say the very least, a deeply silly filmmaker. “I never get excited by coincidence,” Garber says in an early scene, but Scott clearly get excited by absolutely everything, regardless of how inane or pointless it might be. His spastic editing and love of blaring soundtracks, his inability to settle upon anything for more than half a second or keep his camera from aimlessly circling his subjects: all these habits combine to make a monstrously glossy cocktail that in its way something to behold. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is as undeniably diverting as it is stupid, though it gets less diverting and more stupid as it goes—see the superfluous faux-suspense sequence where a subway car hurtles toward a destruction we've already been told isn't going to occur, or the nonsensical showdown/show-off/suicidal finale.
However, Pelham 1 2 3 also holds a certain interest simply as a broad portrait of contemporary Manhattan, strikingly contrasting the dinginess of the 74 version with its high-tech transit management, its police force as virtual standby army, and its surprisingly complex characterization of its municipal leaders, with James Gandolfini giving a fun performance as Hizzonor. Garber seems the avatar of this whole vision of a city that’s equally culturally diverse, overwhelming in terms of busyness and bureaucracy, and somehow cozy. The final image of Garber cheerfully bringing a full gallon of milk home to his apparently lactose-starved wife (Aunjanue Ellis, lovely and totally game in a goofy bit part) rather audaciously leaves his guilt in the bribery scandal totally ambiguous. And there’s something oddly charming, if absurd, about the sense that for all the extra drama, this was all just another day at the office for this hard-working New Yorker.