"The Taking of Pelham 123" remakes a '70s hijack thriller remembered for its signature Walter Matthau performance and clever ending.
The slick, expensive new version doesn't lack for starpower - it has Denzel Washington and John Travolta - but it junks the trick ending, I guess figuring there'd be no surprise in repeating a surprise ending.
The only surprise in the new "Pelham" is that there's nothing to replace the narrative ingenuity of the original. In fact, there's almost no ending at all.
And not much going on in the beginning and middle, a fact that director Tony Scott disguises with his customary razzle-dazzle - splashy widescreen shots, a lot of movement, a million angles cut together with loud music that signals something significant is happening. (Something significant is happening: you're being relieved of $8 you could have spent on "The Hangover" or "Star Trek").
Some of the noise comes from Travolta, who's in screeching, cursing (f-bombs abound) over-the-top mode as a guy who calls himself Ryder, leading a team of armed thugs as they commandeer a New York City subway car, holding its commuters hostage for a ransom of $10 million.
Washington is Walter, the man in the subway system command center who controls the train traffic and communicates with Ryder. John Turturro is a hostage negotiator who advises Walter, and James Gandolfini is the Guliani-like mayor who hustles to deliver the cash, and gives the movie a superficial, post-9/11 relevance.
"Pelham" becomes a two-hander between low-key resourceful Walter and manipulative, diva-like Ryder, and does a decent job playing up the battle of wits/personalities between Walter and Rider - not easy to do, since they are virtually never on screen together.
Still, it's sound and fury, signifying nothing. Before long you realize that the movie, like the subway car, is stalled on the tracks. "Pelham" pushes a Wall St. scandal storyline that mysteriously fizzles, as does a live-webcast angle (one of the hostages is live-chatting with his girlfriend when the heist occurs).
"Pelham" is such a collage of dead-end plot lines that you wonder if something more lucid, perhaps more sinister, was shot and junked. Something that made more sense but tested poorly?
What remains is a collection of yowzah stunts - we follow a police motorcade loaded with the $10 million as it tries to beat crosstown traffic ahead of a tight deadline, resulting in several stupendous crashes/explosions. Cars blow up. Blow up real good.
So, it's not a thinking man's thriller, unless you are thinking about why Walter and the mayor, who control the transit system and the money, do not put the $10 million on a subway car and zip it directly to the kidnappers.
Or hail a cab. I've ridden with some maniacs who could make that trip with time to spare.