This is the third incarnation under this title: the first was a book by John Godey and the second was a 1974 film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, which became a cult classic. The following will attempt to avoid quality comparisons.
Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is a MTA administrator who was recently demoted to dispatcher pending an investigation of bribery allegations. Without warning, the Pelham 123 train stops between stations and detaches while reports of gunshots surface. Then a voice that doesn't belong to the motorman comes on the line announcing he has hostages and he'll execute one for every minute that he doesn’t have $10 million after a one-hour deadline – and his name is Ryder (John Travolta). As the deadline counts down, Garber, the hostage negotiator (John Turturro) and the NYC mayor (James Gandolfini) scramble to prevent any unnecessary loss of life.
The time is referenced and posted on the screen continuously, emphasizing the ticking clock factor. However, the best conveyance of the time limit is the money run between two ends of New York during rush hour. It's fast, exciting and the best sequence of the film. Cut with tense attempts to distract Ryder and bide time, the shots of six motorcycles and one police cruiser racing through crowded streets is impressive. Even better are the predictable mishaps.
The actors involved are recognized and accomplished with three Academy Awards between them. But director Tony Scott tends to attract high calibre actors; he's also previously worked with Washington and Gandolfini. These men make quite a formidable combination, but the female presence in this picture is near inconsequential. There's a hostage with her son, a girlfriend on the outside of the situation, a female dispatcher and Garber's wife – they're tools more than integral characters in the plot.
In the end, everything was done right but the film doesn't always deliver. At times, the dialogue is trying too hard without effectively conveying the criticalness of the fast approaching deadline. The rising body count is slightly better in this respect. Ryder's unstableness is on a hair trigger but Travolta's played this role before, as has Washington with respect to a normal guy in an intense situation.
Overall, Scott's produced a very talkative action flick that works part of the time.