It’s a bad, bad day in N.Y.C. A dog day, you might say. In broad daylight-well, in the dark demimonde beneath broad daylight-a gang of ugly thugs are executing a well-organized plan to squeeze the city of $10 million by holding hostages in a commandeered subway train. In this grim, gritty, and fun summer romp-a Tony Scott-directed remake of the 1974 flick-we find ourselves again in the general genre neighborhood of another mass transit-related thriller, Speed, with its key equation of time and urban space spiced with dread. We also can’t shake comparisons to the hostage psychodrama classic Dog Day Afternoon, except without the blessing of Al Pacino or that film’s crack director, Sidney Lumet.
In his role as the tattooed ringleader, John Travolta does a not-so-good job of playing a very badass dude (ironically, John Turturro, here playing the cool-calm hostage negotiator, might have done a better job in said badass role). Travolta’s character is a strange and not wholly convincing merger of an embittered psychopath without remorse for offing hostages and a wielder of greater financial cunning than we imagine. Meanwhile, on the other end of the negotiation line, a demoted MTA dispatcher (Denzel Washington) plays the concerned career man whose own transgressions have to do with situational ethics and concern for his children.
Scott manages to work his tense, nervous-making action film voodoo to good effect. With a jittery mix of filmic and editing touches and keen attention paid to the particulars of N.Y.C. topography, he makes our pulses race and satisfies our taste for urban grit, but he can’t quite make us care. The human element and emotional circuitry between Pelham’s two central characters in this cat-and-mouse game leave us cold. Tony’s brother Ridley-a different kind of kinetic and atmospheric cinema specialist-seems to have gotten more of the empathy gene, while Tony deals better with surface matters. But surface counts here, along with all the subterranean angst.