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Denzel and Travolta square off in Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

In 1974's underrated The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Walter Matthau plays a frustrated N.Y.C. transit cop negotiating the release of subway-car hostages. In the zippy but less sharp remake The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Denzel Washington plays a dispatcher named Walter, in tribute to the original's star. That's one of the new twists in director Tony Scott's fast and occasionally funny update.

Walter's having a typical day at his job — bullshitting with coworkers, maneuvering subway trains throughout the city — when a group of machine-gun-toting bad guys (led by a mustachioed John Travolta) takes over one of the cars. They stop the train (the Pelham 1 2 3 of the title) on the tracks, in the middle of a tunnel, and demand $10 million in exchange for 19 hostages. Travolta's Ryder gives authorities one hour to deliver the ransom (in small bills, of course). If he doesn't receive it, he'll kill one passenger for every minute it's delayed — "late fees," he says.

Unfortunately, family guy Walter takes the hijackers' call and becomes Ryder's go-to man. Even though a beleaguered mayor (Sopranos don James Gandolfini) and an NYPD hostage negotiator (John Turturro) get involved, Ryder wants to deal only with Walter, who comes with his own baggage: He used to be a bigwig with the Metro Transportation Authority until he was demoted for some shady business practices overseas.

Then there's the mystery of how the hijackers plan to get away, since cops will be blocking the tunnel's escape routes. Plus, why does Travolta keep checking stock prices on his laptop and referring to the hostages as "commodities"? And did Walter really take a bribe when he was in Japan?

Washington brings his usual stately cool to Walter, slowly transforming him from a downgraded desk jockey to a button-down-shirt-and-tie-wearing action hero. Meanwhile, Travolta gives his most intense and showy performance in years as the foulmouthed and tattooed Ryder.

Scott isn't known for his subtlety (he directed Top Gun and The Last Boy Scout), but he stages scenes where Walter and Ryder feel each other out — over the phone from their respective HQs -— with finesse. The first two-thirds of Pelham is a genuinely suspenseful film, slowly simmering as the clock ticks down. Then he piles on the action-movie clichés: loud guns, even louder techno and hip-hop beats, jump-cuts, cars zooming through the city, cars crashing in the city. It all culminates in an underground-to-street showdown — Scott finally unleashed and working in his gaudy element. Until that point, it's a helluva thrilling ride.

mgallucci@clevescene.com

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