If you think this particular subway ride is calling out to you, says Kimberly Gadette, think again. It probably won't take you where you want to go.
There are mysteries in this world that we cannot comprehend. Mysteries such as taxidermy careerists, decorative toilet paper and the ever-changing properties of soy.
And then there's the mystery of screenwriter Bruce Helgeland, writer of such classics as Mystic River, LA Confidential and A Knight's Tale. Oh, sad Icarus, to fly so high, to fall so low.
It's not that the original movie couldn't have enjoyed an update. In both versions, a psychopath and his cohorts take over a New York City subway car, hoping to score big bucks by trading passengers' lives for cash. In the first, Robert Shaw plays the hijacker who goes head to head with Walter Matthau's reticent transit cop. In this reboot, John Travolta is Ryder, the manic mastermind, who plays cat-and-mouse with Denzel Washington's Garber.
But instead of Helgeland pumping energy into the story, it's the external elements that benefit from a modern sensibility, leaving the plot and dialogue to languish on a gummy subway car floor.
Case in point: with thirty minutes to go before the subway passengers are murdered, head NYPD honcho Camonetti (John Turturro) schools Garber in the finer points of hostage negotiation. Time is of the essence, yet Camonetti engages in the Socratic method of asking questions, leading Garber to answer haltingly, hopefully correctly. Slowly explaining a possibly tricky moment with Ryder, he patiently asks, "… and what would you do then?" Garber tentatively guesses the right answer. Turturro, the proud tutor, is pleased, continuing the lesson. Just tell him what he needs to know, man! People's lives are at stake!
The police officers loiter as if they're waiting for the bank to open. The clock ticks on … ten minutes before the group slaughter, and someone's looking up information on one hijacker's prison records. Other fellows wander through Garber's house, maybe they'll find a clue. No rush, we'll get back to you when we can.
Choosing a numeric "1 2 3" for this title versus the prior film's alpha of "One Two Three" is about as streamlined as the script gets.
To be fair, the 1974 version (directed by Joseph Sargent, written by Peter Stone) wasn't all that speedy either. But with great character actors (Jerry Stiller, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo), Sargent's film mingled suspense with a streetwise sense of humor. When discussing the passengers' possible fate, one smart-ass transit employee says, "What do these people expect for their 35 cents? That they're gonna live forever?"
The current film eschews these smarts in favor of impressive effects. Tony Scott pumps up the rap music, stages splashy vehicular crashes and turns cinematography into an extreme sport. The streaking train movement, the underground shots bathed in a phosphorescent green, the looping shots of Manhattan from a dizzy helicopter … it's Scott's previous Days of Thunder, now gone underground.
Travolta seems to relish his two-dimensional character Ryder, careening from smart to maniacal and then back again. Funny, he plumbed more profound artistic depths when voicing his star doggie in Disney's Bolt.
Echoing Ryder's Van Dyke beard with one of his own (signifying that maybe Ryder and Garber are brothers under, or rather, over the skin?), Washington v Travolta could have provided us with some riveting moments. But since most of their shared scenes take place vocally, with the actors relegated to different locales, the script has to work harder than usual. The actors can't compensate by relying on their craft, eg, the use, or avoidance, of eye contact, of physical engagement; and they can't delight in the sheer, simple energy that occurs when two performers play off each other. It's not that Washington didn't try – he's the good-hearted everyman struggling to stay afloat in a corrupt world – but he deserved a better project.
And so it goes, four projects in with director Scott (Crimson Tide, Man of Fire, Deja Vu). Like the subway car itself, it may be time for both of them to move on.
Rating on a scale of 5 "ends of the line": 2
Release date: US: June 12, 2009; UK: July 24, 2009
Directed by: Tony Scott
Screenplay by: Brian Helgeland
Based on the novel by: John Godey
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini, Michael Rispoli
Rating: US = R; UK = 15
Running time: 106 minutes