The Taking of Pelham 123

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      Starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Rated 14A.

      The Taking of Pelham 123, one of the few films this summer to carry numerals in its title, is not a sequel but an update of a 1974 film that made a virtue of modesty where this one wallows in excess.

      Watch the trailer for Pelham 123.

      The excess is courtesy of veteran action director Tony Scott (Top Gun), who tosses in cheesy freeze-frame and blurry video effects recalling ’90s rock videos more than they do any Dog Day Afternoon aesthetic. On the other hand, the actors proceed with enjoyable relaxation, unmindful of car chases and other pyrotechnics around them.

      In the original, Walter Matthau played grizzled transit cop Zachary Garber, drawn into a microphone pas de deux with Robert Shaw’s ice-cool Mr. Blue, who led a Quentin Tarantino–inspiring gang of colour-coded hoods in an audacious subway-snatching plan. The premise remains pretty much intact: the smart-guy nogoodnik, here called Ryder (John Travolta), separates a car from its mates, demanding 10 million bucks (it was only one mil 35 years ago) or he’ll start bumping off hostages. And Garber, here with the first name of Walter (get it?), is now a mildly disgraced former bigwig on dispatcher duty. He’s played nicely by Denzel Washington, toning down the noble fury for most of the fast-paced, mostly subterranean doings.

      Where the original had Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, and Jerry Stiller in key supporting roles, here we find James Gandolfini, John Turturro, and an underused Luis Guzmán, all turning in uncharacteristically restrained performances. I’m not sure how much we need another movie about crooks terrorizing innocent civilians, but the script, juiced up serviceably by L.A. Confidential writer Brian Helgeland, has some intriguing twists, and the avid emptiness of Scott’s direction is oddly refreshing. Only one question: where the hell are the wah-wah guitars?