At least as enjoyable as the 1974 original, if not more so, and not just because of the hyperkinetic pace and high-tech. In helmer Tony Scott’s current version, we get to know a lot more about the chief baddie Ryder (John Travolta), and Walter Matthau’s transit cop has morphed into subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington). On the downside, character actor Luis Guzmán is wasted in the updated Martin Balsam role, and the hostages are pretty monotone during their ordeal.
The plot is simple enough: The namesake subway train (starting out from the Pelham Bay Park station at 1:23 PM) is hijacked by Ryder and his accomplices. They demand a $10 million ransom, to be paid in one hour. If they do not receive it within the allotted time, they will start killing one passenger every minute, until their demands are met.
Strictly by chance, Garber becomes the contact point for Ryder, and Ryder makes it clear—in a deadly fashion—that he wants nothing to do with an official NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro). Both lead characters have a back story. Garber is under investigation for taking a bribe while on a vendor visit to Japan, during his former higher-end job with the transit authority. He has been demoted, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Ryder was a high-roller Wall Street type, who was sent to prison for embezzlement. The authorities never found all of the money, and it is later revealed that the big prize in this scheme is to profit from gold futures, skyrocketing in the wake of this supposed terrorist attack on the subway. To monitor his investment, Ryder has his henchmen install a router in the subway, so that he can use a wireless Internet signal. The same signal is utilized by one of the young hostages, who contacts her girlfriend, and provides a live feed of the subway car to the media.
Once the mayor (James Gandolfini) agrees to pay the ransom, much is made of the police journey (inexplicably by auto) to bring the cash from the Brooklyn Federal Reserve to the subway car. A few critics (including Roger Ebert) have complained about the overblown special effects used during this sequence. My take is that this is complaining about minutiae, although Ebert has always obsessed on scientific reality—sometimes with good reason, such as in Radio Flyer (1992)
It is no spoiler to mention that the only way a ransom caper like this can work is for the perps to be able to leave the subway tunnel undetected. In the original, Matthau figured out where the exit would be and confounded ringleader Robert Shaw. In this version, it is not quite as straightforward, with Garber being involved to the bitter end.
Reviews are definitely mixed, with the negative ones heaping far too much praise on the original, while mocking Scott’s style, and holes in Brian Helgeland’s script. But this is too facile. No doubt, the perfs in the original were better, but the contrived ending—again overpraised—in which Martin Balsam makes good his escape only to be betrayed when his characteristic sneeze is recognized (as if that alone would guarantee a conviction) deems the 1974 version far from perfect. At any rate, Pelham’s story suffers, in both versions, from an exciting set-up and a far less satisfying resolution.
Perhaps the crix preferred the gritty awfulness of 1974’s NYC. For me, nostalgia is mostly overrated, if not pretentious and just plain misguided. As honest historians will tell you, the good old days weren’t all that good.