The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Where’s Walter Matthau When We Need Him?

Want to know how a city works? Start by watching 1974's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, in which subway hijackers test how long it'll take a million bucks to pass through Gotham's plumbing. Turns out an hour is just enough time to roust the mayor out of bed; convince him that $1 million is cheap for the hostages' sure votes; get the treasury on the horn; and gridlock traffic by wrecking the drop-off car. And yet, in the end, a web of dysfunction from Gracie Mansion to the Transit Authority defeats the crooks' well-oiled machine. At the time, the movie didn't connect with audiences. But in the years after 9/11, Pelham took on new life—a parable of New Yorkers' surly resilience in the face of aggression. With this remake (starring John Travolta as the crime ringleader and Denzel Washington as the subway dispatcher), director Tony Scott turns a presciently post-9/11 movie into an explicitly post-9/11 movie. Make that post-post-9/11: The chief bad guy only looks like a terrorist, when in fact he's an even scarier foe—a commodities trader! But if self-conscious stabs at significance don't sound as much fun as the original's unpretentious caper thrills, that's because they're not. Scott's redo comes up short in almost every regard against the '74 model—against David Shire's knuckled-brass score, against its gallery of '70s New York character actors, against Peter Stone's serrated script. And if it's somehow unfair to compare the two, why was Pelham even remade?

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