It would be quite inaccurate to say that I loved the new Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; it's a bit of a stretch to even say that I liked it. But I did find it to be frequently entertaining and enjoyable in the way that sound and fury can be entertaining of a summer's afternoon, and this fact makes me very angry. For I have absolutely no use at all for the film's director, Tony Scott, and if there was a movie I was hellbent on finding faults with, this would be it. There are, certainly, faults a-plenty, but God damn me if I didn't think, on balance, that the movie was good more often than it was bad. At any rate, I've done my duty be revealing the baggage I carried into the theater, and now you can adjust your reception of my opinion as is appropriate.

Remade, fairly loosely, from the minor classic 1974 original and the 1973 novel by Morton Freedgood as "Jon Godey" (in both cases, the "1 2 3" of the title is spelled out, and that doesn't seem like a particularly important change though it's an awfully specific one), the film tells the story of two men and what happens to them over the course of about two hours one day in New York City. There's Garber (Denzel Washington), a former administrator with the MTA who's been bumped down to train dispatcher due to an infraction whose details remain a mystery for a decent enough chunk of the film that I'm going to consider it a spoiler; there's also a crazy-eyed man with buzzed hair and a semi-Fu Manchu mustache that I took to calling the Amazing Face Mullet in my head while I was watching, who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta) when pressed to call himself anything at all. Ryder isn't just crazy-eyed: he's crazy altogether, and that is why he has hatched a plan to take one car hostage on the Lexington Avenue subway out of Pelham Bay Park; he calls in to the dispatcher's office, informs Garber that he's just become a negotiator, and sets a deadline of one hour to receive $10 million in cash, or he'll start blowing away the 19 innocent souls he has at his mercy. The two men's pas de deux unfolds very nearly in real time, pretty much until the last scene.

That's a fairly simple version of the somewhat twisty plot (and not to give anything away, but the way it was modernised, tapping into our fears of terrorism and the stock market gone amok, is way more elegant that needs to be - but the credited Brian Helgeland and the uncredited David Koepp are both of them fine writers), but I find it hard to believe that narrative machinations are the big draw for anyone with this film. Its actual reasons for being are two: watching Washington and Travolta ping-pong off of each other despite spending most of the film on opposite ends of a walkie-talkie, and watching Tony Scott go absolutely bugfuck with style. I shall address the second of these points first. Scott's career neatly divides into two phases: his early movies that are very splashy and stylised; and his later movies that are so stylised that it's like watching Scott's mind's eye having an orgasm. This later phase has also included Man on Fire, Domino, and Déjà Vu; I haven't seen the middle of those films, but I found the first and last to be borderline unendurable in a lot of ways, and it's reliving that Scott has ratcheted back on nearly all of his bad habits on display in them. There is, for a start, the new movie's refreshing lack of a proto-fascist admiration for the destruction of human beings: it lacks the moral indifference of Déjà Vu or the moral atrociousness of Man on Fire, and there's not a single death in Pelham which doesn't at least slightly bring home the brutality of violence - even the bad guys' deaths are as much shocking and sickening as anything else.

More to the point, if Pelham still uses the same kitchen-sink aesthetic that has made Scott's last few films such migraine-inducing explosions of movement, color, and screeching noise, at least it's easier to figure out why in this case. Not always: for the first 20 minutes, particularly the stupidly busy opening credits (I know that Tony Scott is not the only filmmaker to give us titles that "whoosh" as they appear and disappear, but dammit, Pelham is no Superman) have such a crazy blend of fast cuts, quick camera moves, crash zooms, blaring music, overbearing Foley work, and heavily stylised cinematography, that it doesn't seem enough just to accuse the film of using music video language in a feature film: it seems much simpler and more accurate to say that Pelham is a music video with some feature film wedged in their to give everything some connective tissue.

Happily, this goes away, sort of: it's never really absent from the underground, or "Travolta" scenes, but for the most part, once the action starts going the dispatch office, or "Washington" scenes are slick without being pointlessly shiny, and surprisingly enough the whole movie is quite easy to follow from shot to shot. In the narrative, of course, Garber is the terrifying hothead, which makes their competing aesthetics work for the movie's overall impact, not against it, showing off like a junior high kid on a skateboard while the script flounders about lost. See how easy that was, Mr. Scott?

It also helps that nearly all of the movie is trapped in limited spaces, though the director manages to find a lot of ways to shoot gigantic dolly shots of a train in a space only a few feet larger than itself. And of course, I'm talking in generalities: the most excessive moments in Pelham are very excessive indeed.

As to the acting: Washington, going around with Scott once again, proves to be a more than capable anchor with his calm, authoritative voice and the way that he's often framed in close-ups, often just a wee bit beneath, so that he has a looming presence. Lord knows it's not his career peak or anything, but he does what he does, and it's satisfying. But Travolta is altogether another story, playing a flat-out parody of a human being and having a hell of a good time doing it, damn the fact that it barely seems to fit in with any other element of the film whatsoever. It's not just the exquisitely strange facial hair: it's the strange childlike enthusiasm with which he talks about killing people, and the odd upturn in his voice when he says "motherfucker" (and he does that quite a lot). Though there's a weird magnetism in his dialogues with Washington as a result, this is mostly just a confounding performance. It really doesn't help that Travolta's character keeps spouting market jargon, which means that he says the word "leverage" a lot, and if there's one objective fact which every man, woman, and child can rally around, it's that Travolta should never be handed a script with the word "leverage" in it ever again.

The supporting cast does well enough: Luis Guzmán is criminally underused as Ryder's second in command, John Turturro pulls a standard-issue Turturro Performance out for the hostage negotiator that helps Garber through his ordeal, and James Gandolfini is absolutely brilliant as the mayor of New York, a resigned cynic who loves his city but doesn't love at all the way it turns on you for just a few marital infidelities. But this isn't a film about the supporting cast.

In the end, the film is not a great success: Tony Scott's balls-out style has grown ossified, and the only change he makes here is to use less of it, and let the story through - which is a step up for him. Really, I can't think of any good way to defend it all. But that fact remains: for 109 minutes, I was quite diverted, and that does take a measure of skill. With great reluctance, nearly insurmountable, I must conclude that the honest and honorable thing to do is admit that despite being a routine shock and awe action picture that is a touch too familiar to be shocking or awesome, Pelham gets my recommendation by the very thinnest of margins.