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Originally published June 11, 2009 at 3:00 PM | Page modified June 11, 2009 at 4:18 PM

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Movie review

'The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3': Remake is sleek, fast, bloody

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" — a remake of the 1970s-era Walter Matthau/Robert Shaw actioner — is efficient, well-paced and laden with special effects, but lacks the humor and New York flavor of the original. It stars Denzel Washington, John Travolta and John Turturro. Movie review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," with Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, Michael Rispoli, James Gandolfini. Directed by Tony Scott, from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by John Godey. 106 minutes. Rated R for violence and pervasive language. Several theaters.

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MOVIE REVIEW 3 stars

It's been 35 years since "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" jolted theatergoers, with Walter Matthau as a calm, sardonic New York transit cop presiding over the hijacking of a subway train by a group of armed, well-dressed gentlemen led by Robert Shaw. Since no good movie must go un-remade these days, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" (the snappy numerals in the title are apparently a 21st-century touch), with Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the Matthau and Shaw roles, arrives in theaters today. And what's changed in 35 years? The easy availability of fake blood, apparently, among other things.

The new film, directed by Tony Scott from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, has much to recommend it; it ticks along as efficiently as a new clock. The performances are smooth, the car-crash effects remarkable, the pace never flagging. And yet, when I followed a screening of this movie with a first-time viewing of the 1975 original at home, it was clear which one was more fun to watch.

There's a wry, very New York-style humor to the first movie that's almost completely absent from the second (except for a few scenes with James Gandolfini as the exasperated mayor); jokes, it appears, are no longer allowed in movies about hostages. "1 2 3" is not only more grim than "One Two Three," it's also far more violent; while the earlier film found tension almost entirely in suspense, the new film finds it in blood-drenched windows, the wide eyes of a terrified child hostage, and point-blank shootings. And nobody in "1 2 3" gets to deliver this classic line, muttered by a curmudgeonly transit employee in the original: "Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents — to live forever?"

The story in the new film is similar but has been tweaked: Washington's character, Walter Garber, is a transit employee (not a cop) sent back to subway dispatch while he's being investigated for wrongdoing. He's the voice Travolta's character, Ryder, hears when making demands, and he becomes the center of the drama, as Ryder — who will only talk to him — explains that passengers will be killed if he doesn't receive $10 million within an hour. A cop (John Turturro) tries to coach Garber through the process, explaining that his job is like that of a rodeo clown: "Keep the bull from focusing on what he'd like to do."

Some contemporary touches add to the tension, such as a subway rider's Webcam, which turns out to be a crucial view into the train for the negotiators. Ultimately, though, this thriller feels smart and efficient yet often grimly mechanical. But what the hell did you expect for your lousy 10 bucks — a movie better than the first one? Fat chance.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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