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3:10 to Yuma Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 19, 2008

    3:10 to Yuma Review
    “Where's the 3.10 to Yuma?”

    “Running late, I suppose.”

    “How late?”

    “Beats me. Gets here when it gets here ...”

    “Goddamn trains. Never can rely on 'em, huh?”

    James Mangold's updating of Delmer Daves' original 3.10 To Yuma takes the sensible option of throwing in a lot more action whilst still retaining the essential character-play and fizzing, multi-motivated dialogue that made the 50's pot-boiler simmer along quite nicely. With a series of writers having a crack at the screenplay, the results are nowhere near as patchy as you might have expected. In fact, barring one clumsily-handled section which I'll come to later, the film is smooth and follows an excitingly incident-laden arc that is sure to satisfy fans of the form. Based on a scant 16-page short story by the celebrated Elmore Leonard, Yuma is a terrific return to the style of filmmaking that made Hollywood the king of the Wild Frontier for decades in the saddle. Yet despite what Mangold may say his commentary and in the production features, his take on the story is far less mythical than he thinks - with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe spearheading the bullet-trail, a certain stark realism cannot be avoided. And, it is, perhaps, this very conjunction of old school directing and next generation acting that makes his film so darn enjoyable.

    More more than any other genre, the Western embraces the concept of fate and man's mortality. John Ford met destiny head-on in the likes of My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, and Sergio Leone - the stylistic opposite of Ford - made entire operas out of the concept with his celebrated Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and in-between them, any number of other directors toyed with the fatalistic drama of life and death in the West. But Delmer Daves' original 3.10 To Yuma bore a huge resemblance to the ticking-clock suspense of the especially destiny-driven High Noon from Fred Zinneman more than any of its other influences, the arrival of the titular train the moment when paths diverge and lives are sacrificed for various codes of honour in much the same way that Gary Cooper must face his own fears and sense of pride when a similar train arrives at the outskirts of his town. Mangold takes this ethic but imbues it with many more tangents, variables and asides - he also takes to the trail and leads us on a glorious extended trip through the Bad Lands, literally as well as figuratively. And it pays off quite spectacularly.

    “Why the hell didn't you do something?”

    “They had a lot of weapons, Mister ... and they were shooting bullets.”

    Mangold has already taken a modern-day stance with High Noon when he made CopLand with Stallone, but foretold of his interest in Daves' similarly themed film when he named his main character in it Heflin, after the actor Van Helfin who portrayed the down-at-heel hero of 3.10 To Yuma. Itself, a broadened-out adaptation of Elmore Leonard's story, the original was one of the first psychological westerns, and certainly one of the better thought-of oaters from the ten-a-penny fifties. The story now, as then, has desperate, hard-times rancher Dan Evans (played this time out by the awesome Christian Bale) having to escort the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe here and Glenn Ford in the original) across country alongside a nervous posse to meet the titular train that will transport him to prison. Under severe financial pressure and the need to instil pride in his young sons, the crippled Civil War veteran (he had the bottom of his leg blown off) eagerly seeks the $200 wage for the dangerous job. Having already met Wade during the aftermath of a violent stagecoach robbery that opens the film, Evans forms a uneasy alliance with him - distrustful of him but respectful to Wade's smirking superiority and eloquent arrogance at the same time - and the pair will have to dig deep into their inner resolve to get through the trip to catch the train. A trip made all the more difficult and traumatic considering that Wade's gang, led by his own flamboyant and homicidally deranged devotee, Charlie Prince (played to perfection by Ben Foster), are in hot pursuit and hell-bent on springing their boss before he gets strung up in the Yuma prison.

    “Is it true that you dynamited a wagon full of prospectors in the western territories last spring?”

    “No, that's a lie... It was a train full.”

    No stranger to the frontier with Sam Raimi's fun comic-book western The Quick And The Dead under his gun-belt, Russell Crowe essays the tough and notorious outlaw Ben Wade, the biggest thorn in the side of the railroad's ambitious intentions for the territory, with a huge sense of status and his own iconic grandeur. Exactly like Glenn Ford before him, Crowe finds the irresistible charisma that underlines the character and, even if the dialogue is earthier now and more naturalistic, maintains his ne'er-do-well's core mixture of decorum, honour and threat with distinction and a fair degree of wit. His veiled savagery still simmers when he sits down to a charitable meal at the Evans' ranch but you get the impression all along that he is playing with his own reputation, living up to it, so to speak, behind the pretence of congeniality, knowing full well the fear that he inspires in folk. The fact that such a reprehensible scoundrel can also get the girls is not at all unbelievable. Even today, in nightclubs and bars across the world, the stunning women are drawn to the bad boys for their brazen attitudes, sheer effrontery and calmly confident wiles. Annoying, eh? But true. Both Crowe, in beguiling colour, and Ford, in stark black and white, effortlessly convince in their somewhat foolhardy seduction of their respective barmaids as well, that lustful twinkle in their horizon-chasing eyes becoming the very stone that will trip them up. The leading lines about green eyes, show-girls and sea-captain's daughters are marvellously poetic and undeniably disarming. If anything, the remake enforces this, with the defensive almost-swooning of Alice Evans (Gretchen Mol in a role considerably truncated from the original hero's wife played by Felicia Farr) as she is fixed by Wade's penetrating gaze, more disturbingly realistic than her predecessor's overtly flattered frontier-bride. Crowe's Wade has something of an artistic bent, as well, sketching wildlife in the lull before an ambush, and his turn of phrase is decidedly loquacious. You can plainly see how he can command such affection from his outfit and why he can remain so assured even when a multitude of weapons are being levelled at him. Larger than life and strengthened by his fierce notoriety, Ben Wade is the archetypal celebrity-renegade. Without the likes of him, the West would be soulless.

    He's also got the best hat in the history of cinematic hats, too. Bar none. Not even Indy's fedora. And that's got to count for something! When he eventually regains it after becoming separated from it for half the film, their reunion is one of those visually cathartic moments that the western does so well.

    Christian Bale is one who is short-changed in this scenario. Unlike Van Heflin's likeably hangdog rancher searching for a reason to go on and praying for rain to save his drought-ravaged land like a Biblical reprieve, Bale's incarnation is dour, glum and riddled with self-doubt. The loss of his foot in the war has emasculated him to a certain extent and he needs to re-install himself as a hero in the minds of his two young sons and the wife he feels he can no longer provide for. Bale is edgy, hard-bitten and forever-wary. But this is a condition that doesn't alter as the film progresses, whereas Crowe allows his character to reveal chinks in the armour, a streak of humanity and an off-kilter dignity that his word-of-mouth infamy has kept hidden. This is not to say that Bale doesn't acquit himself with his typical conviction, of course. The actor has many moments of tense morality-checking, his reluctant bonding with his captive worn explicitly on his sleeve and his principles constantly put to the test. He nails the dilemma that Evans faces with a keen desperation that evolves throughout the trip into that fateful knowledge that he will, at some point, be forced to stand alone. Early scenes of him taking flack from the bully-boy tactics employed by the town tycoon he owes money to allow us to see him at his lowest, his virtual impotence far more shameful than the run of bad luck that Van Heflin suffers. Thus, Bale's rancher certainly seems more than credibly ready to accept the challenge of putting Wade on the train. Somehow, though, I didn't quite buy into the scenes of Evans with his family - Bale just seems too distant towards them to have us fully understand what he risks losing. This is only a minor caveat, though, since he is terrific when he realises that the net has closed in and only he has the courage to see the job through. A last minute revelation packs a punch, too and it is made all the more affecting because Bale delivers it with a resigned grin ... something his character has barely been able to muster up until then.

    “They're lost without him, like a pack of dogs without a master.”

    “Sure as God's vengeance, they're comin'.

    One of the best elements of the film is the development of Ben Foster's effeminate henchman, Charlie Prince. There is something undeniably unhinged about his deadly deviant and this helter-skelter attitude is a trait that he excels at, with his dangerously psychotic drifter in the recent 30 Days Of Night further cementing his on-edge persona. His single-minded devotion to his boss is the crutch that supports the extended, cross-country drama. Even when Wade's other cronies are beginning to have second thoughts about the relentless crusade, Charlie Prince (or “Princess” as someone has the temerity to call him at one stage) has the gumption, the gunplay and the fixated fortitude to force them onwards. The original Charlie was played by the ever-dependable Richard Jaeckel, one of my favourite veteran co-stars (with the likes of Ulzana's Raid, Grizzly, The Dirty Dozen and The Green Slime to his name), and was a pretty three-dimensional character in his own right even then, but the difference that Foster brings to the role is one of ultra-wild unpredictability and sheer venom. Able support is found elsewhere with the likes of Firefly's Alan Tudyck as Doc Potter and, particularly, Peter Fonda, almost unrecognisable as whiskery, trail-bitten old Pinkerton bounty hunter, Byron McElroy, with firewater for blood and a hatred for Wade that seems almost supernatural. Look out for Owen Wilson, too, cropping up as a sadistic chancer with a taste for torture.

    “Tommy was weak. Tommy was stupid. Tommy ... is ... dead.”

    One miscalculation that Mangold makes is in the posse's ill-advised detour into Apache country. Despite giving us some serious chills as to the implications of what may happen to them should the redskins attack - recalling the scary Tommy Lee Jones western-hunt flick, The Missing, with a couple of trespassers already staked out on the rocks like grisly warning signs - the film loses steam during the set-piece when they actually do, and sort of feels like filler. Otherwise Mangold handles the plentiful action with some serious gusto - a Gatling-gun mounted on the back of a speeding stagecoach, the pell-mell chase through dynamite-blasted tunnels and the roof-hopping, wood-splintering, ricochet-spinning finale. The film is quite brutal in places - a bout of nocturnal revenge being a violent shock you won't soon forget - and there are numerous splashy bullet-holes to spice up the adrenaline rush and sharpen the film's already gleaming edge. Hats off to the eye-popping man-and-horse fireball that results from packing too much dynamite into your saddlebags!

    Even with a few new diversions and some assorted gun-blazing set-pieces, Mangold's retooling is remarkably faithful to Daves'. Much of the interplay between the leads is lifted wholesale - from initial meeting and enforced courtesy during a sit-down dinner to stifling hotel room taunts about the nature of duty and “what a man's gotta do” and last-minute soul-searching under fire - and it is to Mangold's credit that he didn't attack the set-up from too different an angle. Refreshingly, he didn't stop to fix what wasn't broken in the first place. But whilst the original pulled-up short of being a classic horse-opera, so does the remake. Arguably the only name in the frame first time around was Glenn Ford's. Here, we have two prime-time, hotter-then-hell-on-a-summer's-day, A-list superstars going toe-to-toe. Sparks should really fly, shouldn't they? Tension mounts, a grudging bond is formed, respect and belligerent camaraderie swiftly follows, yet the Crowe/Bale relationship still somehow lacks the vital chemistry that could - and should - have propelled the movie to greatness. Of course, it is all too easy to expect too much from a big-budget, big cast production tackling an already popular title, but perhaps this was not quite the material to allow the two excellent performers to not only shine individually - as they certainly do - but to hone a trailblazing double-act that lifts the film from the bonds of its genre pigeon-hole. Perhaps it is the screenplay, that only toys with the depth that the two characters could have explored, that is to blame. No-one would ever dream of putting Van Heflin up against Christian Bale in the talent stakes, but watching the original you can sense the guy continually raising his game as his mission becomes more crucial and personal to him. By contrast Bale is all twitchy-eyed intensity and scowls - which is customary, I know, but seems to mask the deeper levels of his desperate predicament too conveniently for someone who you can normally rely upon to really find the nucleus of a character's angst. Crowe's journey eats up the lion's share of the drama, but the thing is he, too, seems content to fall back on his own well-known grizzled charm and coast by without plunging too far beneath the dangerous surface of his lyrical rogue. If it sounds like I'm being hyper-critical, I don't mean to - it's just that Bale and Crowe are my two absolute favourite actors and to finally have them in a film together, particularly one that will have them run the gamut of emotions and see them side-by-side in furious fire-fights, is like pure wish-list fantasy casting. And I don't blame them for the fizzle-no-sizzle dynamics; they do exactly what they have to do with a script that is structured with more emphasis on action than emotion. I just wish that Mangold's film had been able to combine the two extremes of the story a little better and developed the psychology of the two with as much flair.

    “Just remember, it's your old man that hauled Ben Wade to that station... when nobody else would.”

    But 3.10 To Yuma is obviously delighted in its defiance to play like an older western movie, in that it doesn't fly the revisionist flag, doesn't seek to immerse us in frontier authenticity at the expense of entertainment and doesn't embody that cynicism that filmmakers these days tend to regard the genre with. Mangold, to his credit, wants us to have fun with the story, not to leave us saddle-sore with historical fact and educational relevance. Happily, Marco Beltrami's superb score for the film is, likewise, invested with the same sense of vigour and excitement, swaggering along with numerous action cues and catchy little riffs for the main characters, securely roping-in the saga with the rousing ebullience that the likes of Dmitri Tiomkin or Elmer Bernstein might have done had they lived on into this more percussive, less romantic age. But I'll be expanding on his work for the film with a full review of the score soon.

    So, to sum it up, the Bale/Crowe team-up in the dust is a belter of a western, and no mistake. It may not reach the heights that you might have expected it to, given the calibre of the leads, but this is still superior stuff that crackles with sheer entertainment value from start to finish. I saw this at the flicks and liked it immensely. Watching it now, back to back with the original, was good fun, too. And I will be watching it again very soon. That should be a good enough recommendation for a film that won't exactly revitalise the genre but should act as a reminder of a time when westerns were genuinely rip-roaring adventures and not sombre dissertations on the reality of the times in which they are set.

    On a slight tangent - the cover art for this US disc is terrible compared to the Old West-style, sepia-tinted image that adorned the film's original poster of Charlie Prince standing astride the train tracks, a gun in either hand, as the 3.10 comes towards him. Awesome. The distributors seem to think that we need to see big generic shots of the stars instead of something striking and classy. Shame.