If Joseph Sargent's 1974 film "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" came by its intelligence naturally, Tony Scott's remake seems to be book-smart, gaining its knowledge via hours of rote memorization and meticulous study of other crime dramas.
Hey, whatever works. And Scott's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" does work. It moves with tangible tension and clockwork precision, even when its director fudges the numbers.
Both versions are built upon the same core concept of John Godey's novel: A New York City subway train full of passengers is being held hostage. But whereas the original pitted a hangdog police lieutenant (Walter Matthau) against the hijackers, the new version takes a more Everyman approach, ceding those duties to harried subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington, "American Gangster").
As someone who has made the Metropolitan Transit Authority his career, Garber has dealt with little he can't handle, and his expertise at monitoring the city's rails on the wall-to-wall electronic grid in front of him is the definition of grace under pressure. It comes from years of literally working his way up through the tunnels, but there's one role he's never played: hostage negotiator.
In a finely planned operation, a man calling himself Ryder (John Travolta, "Bolt") and his team of heavily armed minions take over the subway train that leaves Pelham Bay at 1:23 p.m. Somewhere underground between stops, Ryder has his men detach a single car from the rest, which go scattering back to the platform. The one left behind, he and his team commandeer.
$10 MILLION AND ONE PENNY
Seeing the unusual string of stop, detachment and reversal alerts, Garber radios Pelham 123's motorman, but gets Ryder instead, who details his demands. They're pretty to-the-point: New York City owes him $10 million and one penny, to be delivered within an hour. At the deadline, he'll start killing passengers, one for every minute wasted.
The mayor (James Gandolfini, TV's "The Sopranos") is notified, and a FBI hostage expert (John Turturro, "Miracle at St. Anna") is whisked into the MTA HQ to relieve Garber of his post. But Ryder doesn't want to deal with the authorities; he only wants to speak with Garber, sensing they're somewhat of kindred spirits.
Therein lies "Pelham"'s greatest surprise, in making Garber far more of a flawed character than audiences would presume. After all, to gain immediate public favor, there are few actors more effective at doing so than Washington. The revelation of Garber's potential fallibility gives the heist flick an interesting ethical layer.
That sets the proceedings up for a more cerebral, meeting-of-the-minds approach than the adrenaline rush the trailer promises. A majority of the action is relegated to a sequence in which the cops attempt to play "Beat the Clock" with the ransom money "? and don't think Scott ("D