The original Taking of Pelham One Two Three was a 1974 heist film starring Walter Matthau as a shlubby transit cop and Robert Shaw as the head of a crew of hijackers. Great dialogue and the grit of pre-Disney New York made it a classic thriller of the era, unpretentious and suspenseful.
Now it's getting a Hollywood makeover, with Denzel Washington as the negotiator (now a subway dispatcher), John Travolta and some "look, I'm evil!" facial hair as the head hijacker, and James Gandolfini as the mayor who just wants the problem to go away. The update focuses on new technology like surveillance cameras and motion sensors, but sticks to the bare bones of the story, based on the novel by Morton Freedgood. (It was also adapted as a TV movie in 1998, starring Edward James Olmos, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Donnie Wahlberg.)
When hijackers take over a New York subway car and threaten to kill the passengers unless they get a million dollars a head in ransom, the plan at first sounds like a joke. A dead man's switch means the car can only run if one of the hijackers is driving. And it's on a closed system of rails, so the mystery of where exactly the hijackers could go after getting their money keeps the cops guessing.
It's a great cast, with good supporting actors like John Turturro and Luis Guzman. And screenwriter Brian Helgeland may have started in the horror trenches with Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 976-EVIL, but he went on to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for L.A. Confidential, and was nominated again for Mystic River. (He also won a Razzie for writing The Postman -- and picked it up in person.)
Director Tony Scott certainly knows action. He directed Top Gun, True Romance, and Enemy of the State (and, incidentally, happens to be Ridley Scott's brother). But his track record in the 2000s has been hit or miss. Domino, starring Keira Knightley and
There's a chance Pelham might end up a kind of Tarantino lite. Scott directed True Romance; Travolta, of course, came back from the Look Who's Talking dead in Pulp Fiction; and the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three is where Reservoir Dogs's "Mr. Blue" and "Mr. White" aliases came from. (Mr. Pink was all Quentin.)
Or it may end up too big budget for its own good. There's a lot of talent here, from writer to director to cast. But the scrappy little thriller from the seventies may not survive a big shot of Hollywood glamour.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 goes into wide release June 12.