This third version of the story of a hijacked New York subway car may be superfluous but it still delivers some zip thanks to Tony Scott’s music-video flash and even a bit of heft thanks to Denzel Washington.
The 1974 version had Robert Shaw (“Jaws,” “The Sting”) as the leader of a group of trigger-happy thugs and a bitter ex-subway motorman and Walter Matthau as the transit cop working for the safe return of the hostages. The film’s great strengths were its nicely twisty plot, its superb cast of character actors (including Jerry Stiller), and its gritty feel for the city at a time of great economic turmoil and municipal decay. Then there was a made-for-TV version in 1998 with Vincent D’Onofrio and Edward James Olmos. This time, it is updated for the era of cell phones, laptops, and failing financial markets. The leader of the hijackers is John Travolta, with a 70’s porn star mustache, a prison neck tattoo, and a whole lot of attitude. He starts out at the top of Mount CrazyAngry and pretty much stays there the whole time. At the other end of the phone is transit guy Garber (Denzel Washington), who has depth of expertise and some complications in his work situation.
Director Tony Scott knows how to deliver a cinematic adrenaline rush, and there are some impressive car crashes and chases. James Gandolfini is superb as the mayor, a cross between Giuliani and Bloomberg, and there are some nice up-to-the-minute touches for the era of cell phones, wifi, and Wall Street collapses. It sacrifices some of the original’s craftiest switch-ups for action but the biggest problem is that Travolta never really connects and Washington’s fully-realized portrayal of the troubled but heroic Garber makes even more obvious Travolta’s struggle to make his character work. Travolta may steal the subway car, but it is Washington who steals the movie.