I was surprised to find this remake of the 1974 thriller was actually pretty good. I thought that, because it was a remake by an explosion-happy director (Tony Scott) and starred ultraham John Travolta, it couldn't possibly be all that interesting. Maybe a mild diversion, but those are a dime a dozen during the summer. But hey, big shock! It's actually pretty tense, with just enough twistiness to fascinate without seeming implausible.
Of course, the biggest reason the movie succeeds is Denzel Washington. Washington plays a disgraced (investigation pending) transit executive who's currently slumming as the control chief. On his shift, naturally, a 1:23 train out of Pelham (New York City) suddenly stops in the middle of its run, and a hijacker demands $10 million to be delivered in exactly one hour, or passengers start dying unnaturally.
What makes this a little more than your typical cat-and-mouse game is the undercurrent of what's gotten Washington character into hot water, as well as Travolta's character's actual motives. After all, he's just grabbed a subway full of hostages, but obviously he can't just ride the car to Cuba, or something. He has to have an escape plan.
Washington and Travolta play off each other very nicely, with Washington's flawless portrayal of a flawed man far more convincing than Travolta's garden-variety unhinged wacko. Essentially, Washington was good enough to counterbalance Travolta's overacting. (Is he crazy, or is he just cleverly acting crazy? Who cares?) Washington's Walter Garber is unsure of himself, an actual Everyman thrust into a madman's master plan. It's roles like these that separate Washington from people like, say, Tom Cruise, guys who can play really only one character, the Man Who Knows Everything. Walter Garber not only isn't a "seize the day" kind of person, he shies away from confrontations he knows he can't win.
Also worth noting are John Turturro (as a hostage negotiator displaced by Washington, since Travolta won't talk to anyone else) and James Gandolfini (as Hizzoner, finally playing a mayor who's not a complete nitwit). Gone is the whimsical naming convention from the first, in which Robert Shaw named his comrades after colors, which was swiped by Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. There are some changes from the original, true, but they don't seem contrived; for example, Walter Matthau was a transit cop in the 1974 version, not some under-investigation suit.
The action is tense throughout, especially since you assume that the hijackers are going to have to murder someone at some point (otherwise, why have a deadline?) Somehow, the movie manages to be gripping and realistic without being over the top. There are some minor bouts of nonsense (did we really need to know that Garber needed to bring home a gallon of milk?), and maybe in the final 20 minutes or so it's a little by the numbers in its approach to action, but overall it's not bad at all. It's certainly a lot better than I'd expect a John Travolta movie to be, but maybe that's because he's the bad guy here, and they're practically expected to be over the top.
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