The Reeler


September 7, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

The actions the thing in Mangold's revisitation (not revision) of the Western

With the musical genre rescued from the archaic curiosities shelf -- albeit by the lousy Chicago -- James Mangold tackles another of Hollywood's great, shipwrecked genres, the Western. (It's the first I've seen in a theater since Shanghai Noon seven years ago, but that was parody, not serious engagement.) Working from the bare outline (and little else) of 1957's minor classic 3:10 To Yuma, Mangold churns out an updated version of the kind of B-movie Westerns were considered to be more often than not. At best, it’s pleasingly crisp; at worst, it’s just sort of maudlin without doing any real damage.

Arizona, after the Civil War: Dan Evans (Christian Bale), one leg missing from combat on the Northern side, struggles against debt and drought to keep his farm from collapsing. Nefarious Hollander (Lennie Loftin), Evans' money-lender, has cut off the stream to his ranch, crippling Evans' resources further; the goal is to kick him off and sell his valuable land to the railroad. The near-accidental capture of outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) offers Evans a shot at redemption: Wade has to be delivered to the titular train without any casualties incurred by Wade's loyal, fearsome gang. For $200 -- enough to save him, barely -- Evans agrees to be part of the ad hoc crew (including excellent supporting turns by Peter Fonda as a bounty hunter and the underrated Dallas Roberts as a nervous Pinkerton's detective), guarding and transporting Wade over the next three days, from tiny Bisbee to the train station at Contention.

The original set-up of 3:10 To Yuma is the stuff of solid if unexceptional genre stock: A man at the end of his tether is forced to re-assert himself over a hostile land and bad people through self-defining acts of violence. The original film focused its energy on the long, tense wait for the moment when the dangerous, bullet-riddled trip to the train station has to be made. Mangold successfully fashions a long middle passage, as Evans' makeshift posse transports Wade. Far from the stark grandeur of Monument Valley, Mangold deglamorizes the traditional Western landscape; here it is a scrubby, shrubby wasteland. The action's the thing -- not the environment or characters -- and Mangold delivers some stellar set pieces. An early stagecoach robbery is superb, emphasizing the bulky physicality of the coach -- its wobbly gait, ungainly bulk, dust flying off the road beneath its wheels -- with multi-layered sound design and well-edited action unavailable (and probably impossible) in 1950’s oaters. A trip through the railroad construction site is almost as immersive an exercise in set design as, say, McCabe and Mrs. Miller's frontier town.

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It's also one of the moments when 3:10 To Yuma almost drops its façade of seriousness and enters camp, with a chase that is as exciting but also as cartoonish as anything in the Joel Silver pantheon. The Western could at times be one of the most ponderous and self-regarding of genres, full of manly virtue and so forth, but Crowe seems to recognize that his character is essentially the Hannibal Lecter of the West. He’s not just the fastest gun around (also prone to killing people with misappropriated household implements), but also a skilled sketch artist and Biblical scholar (he claims to have read it cover-to-cover in three days at the age of eight). Some of Wade’s threatening lines have the hokey quality of Schwarzenegger's puns ("Even bad men love their mamas," he yells before tossing someone off a cliff). The Western thrives on taciturn men; Crowe is one of its smartest, most flamboyant outlaws. He's riveting, occasionally at the expense of the overall tone. (Forced to play passive and put-upon, Bale can't compete; aggression suits him better)

More damaging is the brand-new plot thread of Dan's son Will (Logan Lerman), one of those movie brats who hates his dad for being a sad-sack failure instead of a wealthy success. The relationship between father and son is hardly more complicated than, say, the loathsome scenes in A Night At The Museum where Ben Stiller is forced to cringe with depression because his dipshit kid is sad that daddy doesn't make enough money. This imposition of a bizarre new Hollywood trend -- characters striving to achieve solely to impress their kid(s) -- on an incongruous genre isn't just annoying, but forces major readjustments to the plot that drag it into the groaningly implausible. Mangold throws the whole film away at what should be its crowning glory -- the inevitable stand-off between Dan and the entire gang -- through a series of twists grounded in nothing that's come before. A key psychological shift has to be made at the end in Wade and Evans' relationship; it works in the original, but the kid completely derails psychological plausibility here. Maybe Mangold got confused and thought he was remaking Shane.

Other grafted-on elements weaken the movie further -- wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) chastises Dan, complaining, "We're supposed to make decisions together," as if the equal-power couple were a 19th-century norm, along with a fair amount of ignorable but unnecessary Biblical subtext. But admirably crisp Peckinpah repartee powers most of the movie. Between its maudlin father-vs.-son opening and poorly judged ending, Mangold manages the substantial task of updating the Western without slavishly sticking to outdated modes: It's a well-done action movie in a Western setting, not an archetype retrospective. Worse revisitations of venerable institutions have been made.

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