John Travolta’s wildly successful post-comeback crusade to become synonymous with crap continues with The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3, Tony Scott’s bracingly awful remake/desecration of the classic ‘70s thriller. The miscalculations begin with Travolta’s distractingly Tetris-shaped facial hair—long rectangular sideburns paired with a geometric Fu Manchu—and extend to every facet of the production. Cursed with following in the outsized footsteps of world-class heavy Robert Shaw, Travolta devours the scenery; his performance is 0% inspiration, 100% perspiration.
Denzel Washington stars as a former New York transit bigwig under a cloud of suspicion after being accused of accepting a bribe from Japanese train manufacturers. A chance for redemption lays on the horizon for the demoted and discouraged Washington after business-minded hood Travolta and his gun-toting band of hooligans takes the titular subway train hostage. Elsewhere, James Gandolfini steals the film as a flopsweat-covered mayor concerned primarily with keeping up his approval ratings.
Director Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have replaced the original’s exquisitely observed sense of time and place and neat little New York moments with a one-size-fits-all cityscape so generic the film might as well take anywhere and thrown in cutesy bits of business like a slacker video-messaging his girlfriend throughout the ordeal. In a desperate attempt to fake suspense, Scott—who once again seems intent on inducing widespread epileptic seizures through frenetic cutting and loud noises—intermittently gets his 24 on by reminding audiences how long is left until Travolta starts killing hostages with breathless graphics accompanied by melodramatic music cues more likely to generate derisive snorts of laughter than nail-biting tension. The filmmakers’ attempts to inject timeliness and psychological complexity into the film by tying Travolta’s shenanigans in with the faltering economy and playing up Travolta’s groaningly familiar mind games with Washington backfire. Pelham’s big twist is telegraphed well in advance and neither Washington nor Travolta does much with the hoary trope of the predator who psychologically mirrors his prey. Given wonderful source material and a terrific cast—John Turturro and Luis Guzman are among the wasted—it’s sadly telling that the only thing that really registers is Travolta’s strangely flattering comment that in prison, the sonorous-voiced Washington would be his bitch.