When placed side-by-side to the original 1974 classic slow-burning thriller, Tony Scott's remake looks like Danny Devito did in Twins: inferior in every way. Where Joseph Sargent's direction was subtle, Scott opts to shove everything down your throat; where Peter Stone's screenplay from 25 years ago was clever, Brian Helgeland tries too hard to make it hip and cool; and where Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw proved an unlikely but memorable pairing as good guy / bad guy, Washington and Travolta share next to no chemistry. So rather than sentencing this film to death by comparison (which it does deserve mind you) how does it go as a stand-alone picture? Tony Scott is essentially a glorified Michael Bay. Everything is done fast and loud, regardless if the film calls for it or not. Where this has worked for Top Gun or Crimson Tide it fails here. Scott has infused so much needless action with rapid edits and whiplashing camera movements that it proves to be distracting. Even an innocuous conversation between the Mayor and an adviser has a circling camera catching the scene, such is the constant motion Scott feels compelled to instil. It doesn't stop at the eyes though. Every chance possible our ears are assaulted with unnecessary sounds which are poorly matched to what we see on screen (at one point a helicopter sounds like an F1 car.) Occasionally a film calls for coarse language – some movies can even use excessive language to great effect (Reservoir Dogs or Boondock Saints for example) – however almost every time the F-bomb is dropped in Brian Helgeland's script, and it happens a hell of a lot, it is simply not required. 99% of the colourful language comes from Travolta's crim, but instead of emphasising emotion it purely makes him look stupid. Couple this with plot holes galore and this screenplay from the Oscar winner who wrote L.A. Confidential and Mystic River leaves a lot to be desired.
Thank goodness for Denzel. Incapable of delivering a bad performance, Scott's go-to man (this is their fourth collaboration) salvages this run-of-the-mill action / thriller with his nuanced performance and sheer charisma. As Garber (first name Walter as a nod to Matthau who played his 1974 counterpart), Washington finds a nice balance between your every day worker and someone able to step up in this extreme situation. Travolta doesn't succeed as the foul-mouthed psycho Ryder at all, his go-for-broke portrayal is laughable and ensures we can never take him seriously. Supporting players Gandolfini and Turturro are solid but don't have much to do.
Don't waste your money seeing this on the big screen, wait the six months and rent it on DVD. Better yet, skip this and see the remarkable original Pelham instead.
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