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Blood on the Tracks: The Remaking of 'Pelham 1 2 3'

If Joseph Sargent’s original Taking of Pelham One Two Three seemed to capture the essence of New York at its mid-’70s nadir – overrun with crime and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, its world-weary residents conditioned to expect the worst and hardly surprised when it happened – Tony Scott’s slick, competently staged remake is a warmed-over exercise in style.

It almost works. Rather than channeling the curmudgeonly cynicism Walter Matthau brought to the 1974 Pelham, Denzel Washington, playing a subway dispatcher roped into negotiating a subterranean hostage crisis, is calm and collected but clearly vulnerable. With a desk jockey’s paunch and an earnestly furrowed brow, he is the proverbial everyman, caught in a situation beyond his control and struggling to keep his cool.

Washington disappears into the role admirably, delivering a low-key performance that neatly offsets John Travolta’s manic turn as Ryder, a Wall Street shark turned desperate hijacker. As in Broken Arrow and Face/Off, Travolta takes no small pleasure in unleashing his inner madman. He’s reckless and impulsive, a Molotov cocktail always on the verge of ignition, but restrained just enough to avoid self-parody.

Brian Helgeland’s script updates the story efficiently, reimagining Ryder (previously played by Robert Shaw as the anonymously nicknamed Mr. Blue) as a onetime white-collar crook transformed into a full-on psycho by life in the clink. He demands $10 million in exchange for his hostages, but the ransom is a ruse. Counting on his terrorist-style uprising to crash the post-9/11 market, Ryder is playing the system for a more lucrative payday.

Walter Garber, Washington’s working-class stiff, has problems, too – he’s under investigation for accepting a bribe – and Ryder sees him as a kindred spirit. The two are briefly united for a finale that feels unworthy of the movie that precedes it – for a criminal mastermind, Ryder’s endgame seems laughably ill-conceived and too easily foiled – but it is their sharply written repartee, along with solid contributions from James Gandolfini as an irritable Mike Bloomberg knockoff, that drive Pelham 1 2 3 until it finally flies off the tracks.

Scott, a capable director (True Romance, The Last Boy Scout) who has spent the past decade indulging his fondness for fidgety camerawork in Washington vehicles like Man on Fire and Déjà Vu, contributes needless distractions here. Unlike Sargent, who trusted his simple but effective story to provide the fireworks, Scott resorts to bothersome gimmicks: deliberately choppy editing, speeded-up footage that segues inexplicably into slo-mo, and pointless explosions of noise. Sometimes, less really is more.