4 Reasons We Liked Pelham One Two Three (1974) Better Than Pelham 123 (2009)
1.) The New York of 123 is cleaner, more efficient, and less interesting. In the 1974 film, the low-ceilinged control center, the glimpses of grim city streets, and Mr. Green's crummy walk-up at the finale suggest enough of the battered old New York to make an impression. There aren't too many physical details that stand out in the new 123 -- except the disused Roosevelt train tunnel, a throwback to the distant past. Its train control room is high-tech officious, and everyone's reasonably well-dressed -- none of that rumpled, yellow-tie-with-checkered shirt Walter Matthau thing. Even the trains are spic and span, and the quick looks at Garber's home reveal a suburban house suitable for an air freshener commercial.
In the new version, nothing about the city's physical presence, except its scale, says New York -- which may be why even well-known locales, like Grand Central Station and the Manhattan Bridge, are announced with supers. What it mainly says is "modern North American city," and one that, unlike the old New York, hums along pretty smoothly under normal circumstances -- so much so that subway riders get pissed at the Mayor when the crisis threatens to interrupt their commute, whereas you suspect the 1974 New Yorkers of One Two Three would be resigned to such interruptions. When the transport of the money fails in the first film, it seems like another damn thing going wrong; in the new one, it fails because Tony Scott needed some cool car crashes and the plot device.
One Two Three's New York is New York because it is frayed, struggling, and difficult to manage; 123's New York is New York because it is big, fast, and has a large population.
2.) The new villain talks too much. Travolta's Ryder alternates between two modes: the confident psychopath, boldly announcing his upper hand over and over ("This is the man who's going to rock this city!"), and the haywire psychopath, given to spasms of rage, cursing, and snarls. The old film's Mr. Blue, played by Robert Shaw with exquisite sangfroid even when executing people (including himself -- "Pity"), would not have consented to employ such a lunatic in his crew.
Like Ryder, Mr. Blue is an anomaly in his environment. 1974's New York is a wreck and Mr. Blue is a meticulous criminal craftsman who aims to take advantage of the chaos to make his play. 2009's New York is working just fine, and Ryder is eager to fuck it up -- in fact making chaos, we learn late in the game, is part of his wider play.
Unfortunately Ryder's chaoticism is not very interesting. He goes in for Joker-style doppelganger chatter ("You're just like me!") and cheap nihilism. This doesn't really reach us, and it doesn't reach Garber, either -- when the hostage negotiator counsels him to "deflect," we sense that's easy for him to do, emotionally at least. We want Ryder to fail partly because we want normal old Denzel to be the one left standing, but also so he'll shut up.
We want Mr. Blue to fail, too, but we wouldn't have minded hearing him talk a little more.
3.) The new mayor is not as much fun. All honor to Gandolfini, who gives it a good try, but Lee Wallace's precog Ed Koch in the first film -- whining in bed with a bad cold, pathetically reliant on his deputy -- shows how the relative slowness of the old movie gives its characters more time to make an impression. The new one simply can't bother to provide details like, "The Post will take both sides at the same time. The rich will support you, likewise the blacks..." Of course these would be beside the point in the well-oiled city of 123, where the Mayor's shortfall (philandering) is just a bit of spice, but in the earlier film such touches suggest the messy way its movers and shakers make the bedraggled city go.
4.) Actually, no one in 123 is that much fun. The small talk in the remake is largely confined to the opening. There's not much room for it after that, especially with Ryder yapping so much. Even under the gun the 1974 protagonists banter ("How do they expect to get away?" "Beats the shit out of me, Phil" "I just figured out how they're gonna get away -- they're gonna fly the train to Cuba!" etc). And the new villains are so ruthless and overpowering that the hostages can't do much but cower, whereas the 1974 riders get in some snappy dialogue. One Two Three even ends with a joke.
The old film has a comic undertone that the new one can't afford. 2009's jacked-up pace is part of it, but it's also a philosophical difference. In the new film everyone's playing for high stakes all the time, clenched like fists. In the old film, most characters show some weary resignation, which is something city folk have to learn if they're to keep going. Or at least they used to.