Friday, November 02, 2012

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

USA, 122 minutes
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, Elmore Leonard
Photography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Marco Beltrami
Editor: Michael McCusker
Cast: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol, Kevin Durand, Luke Wilson

It must be said first, I think, that there's a lot of pure competence on display in this latter-day remake of the classic '50s Western, right down to screenplay, performances, editing—even folio work. I was surprised by how compelling it can be and by how well it sustains that, having brought low expectations with me to yet another Hollywood recombinant DNA project. But it's also light on inspiration, signaled most obviously by the fact that it's a remake, which if not a fatal flaw nonetheless remains a burr in the saddle.

Based on an Elmore Leonard short story from 1953 (published originally in "Dime Western Magazine"), the story is a finely tuned instrument: a desperately impoverished rancher volunteers to join a militia delivering a very bad man to a train (the 3:10 to Yuma of the title), which will forward the very bad man on to prison. But the very bad man's gang, possessed of prodigious abilities, wants to prevent this from happening. The tension is established early and never really lets up, even as the ending enters into bizarre and unbelievable realms with various narrative problems.

Pressed to judge, I would cautiously recommend. I haven't looked up the original Leonard story, but I think it's likely that many of the movie's best elements trace back to it. Leonard may have been only 27 when he wrote it, but even through all these filters (remake of a movie version 60 years on) his hand can be distinguished. The rancher and his family are as pure in heart as they are vulnerable. The very bad man is preternaturally gifted and no one can contain him. Most of the others have agendas corrupt one way or another and/or most of them are weak. The stakes are high and established early. Only the strong survive, as Jerry Butler used to tell us.

Director James Mangold, also responsible for Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, is very sharp on the action sequences, which are often remarkable. On the human interaction front, however, there is some tendency to overplay. Russell Crowe as very bad man Ben Wade is excellent throughout, but as it's written and shot the role leans decidedly in a Hannibal Lecter direction, which wears thin. Tick them off: Ben Wade is well spoken, erudite, irresistibly charming, capriciously generous, a talented sketch artist, and no one can defeat him with a gun. If he were a gourmet he could move to Italy immediately.

Still, it must be said, these excesses of tone are quickly overlooked when the picture comes to vivid life in its action scenes, such as an early elaborate sequence involving the takedown of a heavily fortified stagecoach. Mangold puts us right into the action with ingenious setups executed immaculately: sharpshooters, a Gatling gun, vicious Pinkerton operatives. It's just credible enough to be believed, and all elements, however overplayed they may be, are established and moved about the board with remarkable clarity. I say this, for what it's worth, as someone who is often bored, confused, or disaffected by most action pictures.

The story of rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who hobbles about with half a leg missing from a Civil War incident (occasionally seen running flawlessly, however, mostly in the insane ending), is a pretty good counterpoint to Ben Wade. Certainly Evans and his family, particularly the relationship between Evans and his oldest son William (Logan Lerman), offer up all the best and most precarious places to grab on emotionally. That element of the story is more Mangold and the writers, I think, and it's a pretty good call, heightening the contrasts.

Also, don't let me mislead you. Ben Wade is a ultimately a good deal more complex than Hannibal Lecter (and not nearly as evil). He has an interesting way of putting stock in people who somehow earn his respect, which makes him an interesting character to observe. Crowe plays to this almost perfectly. It is a performance that touches many notes—perhaps even too many, but he is always an interesting presence.

And there's more good here: Peter Fonda fine as a self-righteous fundamentalist bounty hunter, the fun had with the ambiguous sexuality of outlaw Charlie Prince. The battles draw on elements established by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, with the sounds of bullets whizzing and striking nearby objects such as metal and wood, plunging us effectively into the firefights.

Unfortunately at the end it becomes incoherent and a little silly. I say "unfortunately," but it's only vaguely confusing in the moment. The problems are all in the narrative even as everything continues to move rapidly with kinetic forward momentum. I found myself caught up in it, the gun play and fast cuts and the events transpiring all pell-mell, even as I found myself idly thinking, about the narrative problems as they unfolded, more or less WTF. It felt like a magic trick by an amateur that suddenly flubs because of something obvious. It's still interesting to watch the trick play out, but now one feels like a bit of a dope and embarrassed for the magician, standing there with an ace sticking out of the back of his collar.

1 comment:

  1. You hit all the right notes, as I recall: Crow is too good (or make that bad) to be true and the ending is preposterous.