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The Taking of Pelham 123

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As Hollywood remakes go, The Taking of Pelham 123 isn't a bad candidate. A 1974 film about a subway hijacking co-starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, the original is terrifically entertaining but probably just short of a classic. One of the definitive "New York in the '70s" movies, it's not very well-known now, and its premise is worth updating for the realities of modern New York — the technology, the terrorism fears, the new political and economic paradigm, etc.

For most of its running time, filmmaker Tony Scott's update does a more respectable job than its overheated trailer suggests, helped along by some good casting: Denzel Washington in Matthau's role as the wry everyman transit official manning the desk when the hijacking occurs; James Gandolfini as the mayor; Luis Guzman in a too-small role as one of the hijackers (the Martin Balsam role in the original).

Where the casting goes awry is with John Travolta's awkward, jittery, self-involved overacting as the chief hijacker, a character the film invests with a preposterous, movie-world motivation. This new Pelham similarly jumps the tracks in its final stretch, when the film desperately and implausibly orchestrates a mano-a-mano showdown between Washington and Travolta — a finale that the more taut, more realistic original didn't indulge in.

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