Review in a Hurry: Anyone expecting a typical big-budget Tony Scott action movie should be forewarned—about 80 percent of this subway heist flick consists of close-ups on John Travolta and Denzel Washington talking over an intercom. Fortunately, it's every bit as compelling as if they were shooting guns the whole time. Plus, the other 20 percent? Car crashes.
The Bigger Picture: The third adaptation of John Godey's 1973 novel—Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw costarred in a 1974 movie, while a 1998 TV version pitted Edward James Olmos against Vincent D'Onofrio—gives the material a modern twist. No longer just a mercenary, the subway hijacker known only as "Ryder" (Travolta) is now an evil Wall Street trader, hoping to recoup his losses after going to prison for massive fraud. He's probably the only Wall Street trader with a neck tattoo and perfectly groomed Morgan Spurlock mustache.
Subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Washington) has the bad luck of being on duty right when Ryder commandeers a train full of hostages, demanding $10 million within the hour before he starts shooting. The two develop a peculiar rapport, with Ryder seizing on weaknesses he perceives in his mild-mannered counterpart, while Garber tries to use the gift of gab to talk him down, even as his own flawed past becomes exposed.
Meanwhile, the mayor (James Gandolfini) decides to pay the money, but it has to be swiftly driven across town by what is apparently the Keystone Kops division of the NYPD, who proceed to crash into anything and everything just so ADD-afflicted audience members won't get bored by all the talking.
Scott, to his credit, mostly lets the actors do their thing and stays out of their way. Sure, he tries to juice things up with silly slo-mo/drop-frame cityscapes, but these are mostly kept to a minimum. And Washington does a great job of persuading us he's kind of a put-upon regular joe, despite being one of the most handsome and famous people on the planet in real life.
Consider, too, that, given the setup, most of his interactions with Travolta must surely have been against a blank screen on set, though he absolutely will persuade you otherwise.
The 180—a Second Opinion: The character of Ryder, however, seems to have been written in a more interesting way than Travolta plays him; the actor simply does that tic-filled, twitchy, over-the-top thing he always does in action movies. Fair enough, but could have been even better.
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