"Money Train" is a by-the-numbers action-buddy picture, and few directors run through those numbers as smoothly as Joseph Ruben. With buddies du jour Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson as the leads, this turns out to be an acceptable if undemanding venture that has to overcome several bumps along the way.
Ruben, with credits including "The Stepfather," "True Believer" and "Sleeping With the Enemy," has a fairly deft touch with the kind of pulp popular entertainment that might have been B-picture material in Hollywood's golden days.
Snipes and Harrelson are reteamed after making quite a splash in "White Men Can't Jump." A hipper version of the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover "Lethal Weapon" pairing, they have a genuine rapport that is often stronger than the actual lines they have to read.
Here, in a goofy twist, they play foster brothers John (Snipes) and Charlie (Harrelson), two tough transit cops who roam the New York City subway system observing the motto of "Serve, protect, break a mugger's neck." Loaded with attitude, they take no guff off anyone but can't do enough for each other.
Actually it's mostly John who does things for kid brother Charlie, an inept high-stakes gambler and perpetual screw-up who is always needing to be bailed out. According to Donald Patterson (Robert Blake), Charlie is "a wreck looking for a place to happen."
As chief of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Donald Patterson is the boss of bosses, which means he spends most of his time obsessing about the money train, so-called because it collects the $3 million to $4 million in cash receipts the subway system takes in daily. (Those tokens do add up.) Naturally, the brothers fantasize about knocking it off, but they are cops after all, so all they do is dream.
The other thing they fantasize about is Grace Santiago (Jennifer Lopez), the newest and most attractive member of their subway detail. This wouldn't be a movie if both men didn't flat out fall in love with Grace, and how they work out that relationship as well as their lust for those millions is the main order of business.
The most successful parts of "Money Train" are its action sequences, which include the hectic pursuit of a twisted psychopath called the Torch (Chris Cooper) and scenes involving subway trains (shot by second unit director and action veteran Terry Leonard) that were so involved that a replica of a chunk of the New York system, called the longest set in film history, had to be constructed in downtown Los Angeles.
But, especially compared to something like "Speed," "Money Train" doesn't have quite enough thrills in it. Rather, extra attention is paid to the buddy comedy aspects of Doug Richardson and David Loughery's script, even though it's not as strong as the relationship that Ron Shelton wrote in "White Men."
In fact, there are signs that "Money Train" was possibly written for a different kind of pairing. Much is made of conflicts between the two brothers, but Harrelson and Snipes have so much innate rapport that the bickering and hostility the plot forces them to engage in is never momentarily convincing.
Snipes and Harrelson perform like the veterans they are, and Jennifer Lopez mostly holds her own with them. Her best scenes, including a memorable conversation held in a boxing ring, tend to be with Snipes, who is such a one-man charm school it's a shame he doesn't appear in sophisticated romantic comedies as often as action films.
"Money Train's" biggest surprise, though it shouldn't be, is Robert Blake, who hasn't made a feature appearance in years. Looking lean and acting lethal, Blake is ruthless and effective as the transit twins' fierce boss, and seeing more of him in the future would be a pleasure.
* MPAA rating: R, for pervasive strong language, violence and a sex scene. Times guidelines: lots of near-misses with subway trains, people set on fire and a man held upside down out of a high window.
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Wesley Snipes: John
Woody Harrelson: Charlie
Jennifer Lopez: Grace Santiago
Robert Blake: Donald Patterson
Chris Cooper: Torch
A Peters Entertainment production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Joseph Ruben. Producers Jon Peters, Neil Canton. Executive producers Tracy Barone, Adam Fields. Screenplay Doug Richardson and David Loughery. Cinematographer John W. Lindley. Editors George Bowers, Bill Pankow. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Mark Mancina. Production design Bill Groom. Art directors Dennis Bradford, Sarah Knowles. Set decorator Beth Rubino. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.