This is what they're up against:
The remake seems to follow the original quite closely, which makes sense since both come from the same novel. Predictably enough, the new film apparently embellishes the main characters with superfluous backstories and builds more of the typical modern "personal" hero-villain relationship than the original movie needed. Washington seems to have made an effort to schlub himself up a bit to walk in Walter Matthau's shoes, but I wasn't worried about him as much as about Travolta. Ever since Broken Arrow Travolta has had some vision of himself as a great movie villain in the charismatic taunter mode. Obviously we can't expect him to be an English mercenary like Robert Shaw, but the understatement Shaw brought to his role was part of how the older film built up tension, and Travolta seems incapable of working in that style. His presence signals a general ratcheting-up of mayhem, with more vehicular destruction in the trailer than the original had in its full length.
The original Taking is a slow burn. We're introduced gradually (and admittedly a little awkwardly at times) to the procedures of the subway and the transit authorities and lulled into a sense of order that we know will be disrupted from watching four suspicious men board the train at different stops. But as a crisis blossoms on the train itself we retreat to the more-or-less orderly (for New York City circa 1974) confines of the transit authority and transit police as Zach Garber (Matthau) contemptuously leads a Japanese delegation on a tour. The crisis spreads out from office to office until Garber is engulfed and must act as a negotiator with Shaw's gang of color-coded hijackers. But for a long while little actually happens as the train sits in the tunnel waiting for ransom, apart from increasingly urgent negotiation Sargent's deliberate pacing, certainly dictated by Peter Stone's screenplay, means that the film doesn't really have to have that much action for the action to deliver genuine jolts.
Sargent's film is as much a film about New York as it is a thriller. As late as the Seventies, New York City was still an exotic locale even in its own collective imagination. The city is full of bawling, ball-breaking irreverent loudmouths ("How can you run a subway without swearing?" someone asks) in a way that reminded me more of the hard-boiled films of the 1930s more than the in-certain-ways more sensitive Seventies. Its mayor is a comedy relief character who looks like Ed Koch before the fact. I wonder if James Gandolfini will be anything like that in the new film. Likewise, I wonder whether the city itself will be much more than a backdrop for action that possibly could take place anywhere with a subway system. But don't take these comments as an automatic dismissal of the remake. To justify its existence, it should strive not to imitate the earlier film, and so should not necessarily take the same attitude toward the city and its people. So I wonder what the hostage passengers will look like, too. In 1974 they were a collection of types: old Jewish guy, sporty looking black guy, Hispanics speaking their own tongue, a girl who tries to stop the train by chanting Om, a hippy who's more than he seems, a drunk woman who sleeps through the entire crisis, etc. In the credits they're identified by types: The Pimp, The W.A.S.P., the Homosexual, the Hooker, the Alcoholic, and so on. For a dramatic moment in 1974 they have the screen to themselves. Will there be a similar moment in 2009?
The 1974 Taking is a convention of character actors from top to bottom. Walter Matthau is an exemplary figure of the decade because its departure from conventional glamour enabled him to be a full-fledged character star. Here he's only partially in his familiar curmudgeon mode, but of necessity his character has an edge and a no-nonsense seriousness (even when joking) that Matthau had shown before in movies from Fail Safe (where he plays a kind of no-joke counterpart to Dr. Strangelove) to that gritty gem Charley Varrick. Aided by a cohort of good guys including Jerry Stiller, Julius W. Harris and Kenneth (Baron Harkkonen) McMillan, he's up against a remarkable team of villains: Shaw, Martin Balsam, an excellently vicious Hector Elizando and the less familiar Earl Hindman, whose career, I learn, ranged from sleazefests by Michael & Roberta Findlay to being Tim Allen's semi-visible neighbor on Home Improvement. In the new film, Luis Guzman sounds promising as a counterpart for Balsam's disgruntled motorman, but I worry that he'll get lost in the emphasis on Travolta as a supervillain. I doubt that anyone could top Elizando as Mr. Grey.
Martin Balsam as Mr. Green will have cause to regret that sneeze later.
An electrifying moment for Robert Shaw as Mr. Blue
The original is simply a great Seventies film all the way from its terrific Manhattan location work to its definitive womp-womp-womp score by David Shire. I consider it one of the best American films of 1974, and despite the implicit dis in the existence of a remake, I think it holds up very well under multiple viewings, even after the initial thrill is gone. Without prejudice toward the 2009 version, I suspect that if someone snuck the original into a multiplex this weekend, people would still walk out satisfied.
And how can Tony Scott et al hope to top one of the best closing shots ever? We'll see soon enough.