The Taking of Pelham 123 is a Tony Scott movie from the first seconds of the opening credits - flashy style, jumpy visuals and edits, calculated to get the heart racing before anything has even really happened.
And to what end? Frills don't equal substance. While there are moments of strong tension in this film, there's never much suspense. Yes, there's action - but there's rarely any actual excitement.
I haven't seen the 1974 film version of John Godey's novel since it came out, but I remember it being brisk and efficient, a potboiler that focused on story more than character - because the main actors (Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw) seemed like complete characters in and of themselves.
But Scott's version, written by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland, wants it to be more. So the characters are given back-stories that are meant to impart depth. Apparently Scott, who has worked with Denzel Washington on several other films, doesn't trust that Washington and John Travolta are deep enough on their own.
Washington plays Walter Garber, working a shift as a subway dispatcher in the New York Transit control center. Travolta is Ryder, who leads a team of thugs in hijacking one of Garber's subway trains and holding it for ransom. Ryder and Garber play their chess game over the radio connecting the subways car's motorman's cab with the control center.
From there it should be a battle of wits - Ryder trying to convince the authorities that he means to kill hostages if they don't pay a $10 million ransom, Garber trying to keep Ryder calm while helping to facilitate a positive outcome for all concerned. There are plenty of variables to keep that from happening: from overeager hostages to Garber's overweening boss.
But Scott can't help getting in the way of the story. He gives Garber a history that's supposed to make us question his reliability: He's under a cloud of suspicion, accused of taking a bribe while taking bids for new subway cars. Scott makes the mayor (played with acute comic pomposity by James Gandolfini) a figure with stains on his record as well. Neither of these bits of character plumping actually adds to the film's momentum or meaning.
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