I suppose the criticism of comparison is inevitable when talking about a remake. Cheap criticism perhaps, but almost obligatory by expectation. Unfortunately, what is also inevitable (or is it obligatory?) is the much much more oft than not failed comparison when all is said and done. In fact I cannot think of a single remake that is superior to the original. (note: after a bit of quickie research on IMDb, I can give props to both Cronenberg's The Fly and Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven) So, cheap criticism or not, one must do what one must do.
That said, Tony Scott's loud, garish, slap-dash retread of Joseph Sargent's subtle and darkly comic original 1974 thriller is inevitably left holding the proverbial hat of mis-comparison. In otherwords, where Sargent's film is a taut, engaging, even acerbic look at the socio-political tensions that ran high in the decaying city that was New York in the mid-seventies (this was made less than a year before President Ford's infamous telling of New York to drop dead) Scott's blaring, and quite unnecessary remake is a frantic, post 9/11 mish-mash of editing that looks as if it were put through a blender before being put in front of an audience. But then, this is just Tony Scott being Tony Scott.
Watching any Tony Scott film is a thing one does only after the very necessary preemptive taking of ibuprofen. His editing style, which can easily be compared to a raging meth head gibbon crashing a helicopter over and over and over again, is a style choice that works in certain films. It works, to some level or another in films such as True Romance, Man on Fire and the rather overlooked Domino. It should probably work here to, considering the level of tension involved in the story of a hijacked subway train, but it just doesn't. No matter how many frenetic swish-swashes back and forth Mr. Scott attempts (and he attempts a fucking hell of a lot of them!) it just never works.
It's not the acting (really!) that pulls us asunder. Well perhaps it is in part, but it's not really all their fault. Denzel Washington as the beleaguered transit dispatcher who gets sucked into the hijacking is given such a mild-mannered role that his ability far overshadows what he is meant to be. In essence, he is overqualified. As for John Travolta as the hyper head hijacker, he goes so far over the top that one would ostensibly need a telescope to see his shit-ass smile. Of course Travolta going so far over the top may very well be nothing more than a reaction to Scott's hectic ape-shit editing style and ultra loud bang bangs. If he didn't chew up the scenery we would never even notice him.
The only performance that manages to escape Scott's self-inflicting firing squad is James Gandolfini as hizzoner da mayor. The cinematic love child of Giuliani and Bloomberg, Gandolfini's mayor is the highlight of an otherwise unhighlighted film. If Travolta is the overbearing papa bear and Denzel the underwhelming mama bear with nothing fun to do, then Gandolfini is just right. Too bad the rest of Scott's blunderbuss of a motion picture is mere junk in the trunk. More mediocrity than mayhem. Add to all this (except the lone light of Gandolfini - let's leave him off the hook!) a final twenty minutes that is so unbelievably ridiculous that it may never sit right in my head, no matter how long it percolates. I've seen worse but that ain't sayin' much.
I guess, in the end, what it all comes down to is that most basic of critical jobs. Do I recommend this film? I suppose it should be obvious by now what my oh so humble opinion is, so I will not dignify such a question with a reply, other than the secret guilt of a cheap thrill now and then throughout this silly little diddle of a film. I do, on the other hand, recommend going out and renting the original and watching that instead. Enjoy. [06/13/09]