What do Walter Matthau and Denzel Washington have in common? Not a lot... In fact, the only connector, besides both having Hollywood careers, is their appearance in renditions of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, an adaptation of John Godey's novel. Matthau, the other grumpier old man, starred as transit police officer Lt. Zachary Garber in the 1974 version, while Denzel Washington stars as train dispatcher Walter Garber in the 2009 version. One's white, one's black, one's dead, one's alive... the list goes on. Thankfully both can act.
Washington does an excellent job in filling the shoes of Matthau, taking his first name as a tribute and his character's last name to play Walter Garber. John Travolta takes the place of Robert Shaw (Jaws), as the character's name changes from Mr. Blue to Ryder. In the 1974 original, the criminals referred to each other as colours to remain anonymous, which parallels another classic with this type of naming convention called Reservoir Dogs. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 movies are both set in New York and both involve the hijacking of a train carriage and the kidnapping and ransom of its occupants.
So why was this remake necessary? Train sets tend to go around in circles? No - the original still has clout, but Italian Job fever took over and when a tried-and-tested film gets names, it becomes a money-spinner overnight. For starters, the refurbished version easily outclasses the 1998 made for TV version with Donnie Wahlberg. Long-time Denzel Washington collaborator, Tony Scott... (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu) is handed the reins on this production giving it a glossier, more contemporary finish than the original. Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, L.A. Confidential) is drafted for the screenplay to add some extra grit to the cat-and-mouse game between Washington and Travolta. Then a host of recognised crime actors get the nod... Luis Guzman (Traffic), John Turturro (Barton Fink) and James Gandolfini (The Sopranos).
The Tony Scott/Denzel Washington tag team hasn't failed us yet... delivering solid 7/10 movies including: Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Deja Vu. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is their first hiccup. It has the added criminal charisma of John Travolta in a role akin to Dennis Hopper in Speed, it has the dramatic weight of Denzel Washington and the gritty direction of Tony Scott. The problem is that's all it has. The thriller leans heavily on these pillars, relying on the tension and character interplay between Washington and Travolta and the magnitude of Scott's direction to pull through.
The story has been done over and over... not just as a remake. We've seen too many hijacking, ransom, tactical negotiation and good guy versus bad guy crime/thrillers to get immersed in the world of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Whether it be in a bus (Speed, The Siege), a bank (Dog Dag Afternoon, Inside Man), a plane (Passenger 57, Executive Decision) or a train (Derailed, Money Train), the triple 'H' hijacking/heist/hostage threat has been overdone. When you brace yourself for a remake, employing this tactic without a unique spin... you can either rollover and play dead or rely on the talent.
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 should have left it at one. Two was a vacuous TV movie and three is nothing special. Audiences will know what to expect, not because they've seen it all before, but because it's a predictable, hollow vessel that has been inhabited one too many times. The only thing that holds this film together is the three musketeers... Scott, Travolta and Washington and if you don't like 1, 2 or 3, you better arm yourself with a pillow for some mindless hostage drama or do the right thing and wait for the next subway train out of Brooklyn.
The bottom line: Lazy.