Though it's supposed to be an updating of the original 1974 movie, this is more a suspenseful drama of conflict between two men with the "taking" only an idea on which to hang the conflict amid stylish, recognizable thriller action.
A hate-filled ex-con called Ryder (John Travolta) guides himself and three equally unpleasant men in a plot to hold hostage a subway train with a load of passengers for $10 million, while Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), a subway dispatcher with a past, who knows the underground system well enough to become a conduit in constant dialog with Ryder, as they track one another using hi-tech electronic systems.
In the original, Robert Shaw is the kidnap leader, while Walter Matthau is the officer in charge of saving the passengers (and the million dollars ransom money); that team under Joseph Sargent's brilliant direction brought John Godey's novel to the screen with a mix of suspense and cynical comedy, while this new version drops all sardonic relief and concentrates on Brian Helgeland's taut, humorless material to turn the flick into another standard heist situation complete with mounting tension, a car race against time through Manhattan's already jammed streets, and the juggling of character traits.
It's a cat/mouse game with plenty of stand-by confusion and surprise twists to keep the game going and exciting with standard suspense fare, right to the suspected conclusion. Travolta's villain is chilling, stylishly villainish. Washington's persona is coolly heroic in the midst of a maelstrom. They operate off one another with interesting, developing contrasts and similarities.
Tony Scott directs with a tight grasp on the jugular, driving the plot with carefully calculated, trendy breath-catching suspense. We are kept guessing from start to finish as one unexpected incident after another toss the gambit from one side to the other.
The noise generated, especially during the car chase (with more vehicle smash-ups than conceivable in that race against time), with no less than 22 editors at work to make it all flashily convincing. Does it work? Add to it the pulsating score by Harry Gregson-Williams and you've got just what the producers wanted: not exactly a remake, but a polished,100-minute generic thriller with the human conflict thrown in for added good measure.