Adapting a steely 1970s hit into a glossy 21st century blockbuster, Tony Scott indulges in his usual flashy pyrotechnics, which almost cover up the gaping craters in the plot. He also encourages his cast to really go for it.
Walter (Washington) is working at the dispatch desk for the New York Subway when crazed gunman Ryder (Travolta) hijacks the Pelham 123 and demands a huge ransom, or else he'll start killing passengers. Ryder refuses to talk to the know-it-all terrorism expert (Turturro), so Walter is pressed into service as a negotiator while the mayor (Gandolfini) gets the cash together. But Ryder and his goons are serious about this and, as the body count grows, the clock is ticking.
Director Scott and writer Helgeland aren't known for their subtlety, and this film is all whizzy style that's more about pure entertainment rather than establishing any actual suspense or character tension. The whole film is a collection of crashing edits, freeze frames, countdown graphics, loud sound effects and cheesily hysterical dialog. In other words, it's great fun. And it gives the cast plenty of scenery to chomp on--especially Travolta, who shows no mercy as he snarls and spits out every line.
Since this is a film about a Subway carriage sitting still in a tunnel, Scott keeps the camera moving at all times. He also manages to throw in a crazed car chase and loads of big crashes for no real reason, as well as orchestrating a painfully contrived reason to get Washington in on the gun-waving action. Not to throwing in several rather overwrought back-stories. By the end, the film has turned into a full-on Die Hard movie, complete with over-the-top violence and some real brutality.
Amid the fabulously enjoyable actors, it's Gandolfini who walks off with the movie using sardonic understatement. The whole film is pretty hilarious, although this clearly wasn't the intention. Scott zooms past plot holes like a runaway train; we barely have time to say "Huh?" before the next bit of action mayhem assaults all our senses. There's not a moment of actual suspense, but it's so big and outrageous that we can't help but hold on for the ride.
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