Saturday, September 08, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

An Elmore Leonard short story provides the basis for both Delmer Daves' 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma and James Mangold's new remake. The author, better known for crime comedies like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, is a master with plot, and the set-up for 3:10 brings a variety of colorful characters together in an intense situation so smoothly, you don't even realize you're watching a complicated story coalesce.

Down on his luck rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) desperately needs money to save the family business. (As the film opens, Dan's banker has sent a few employees to set fire to his barn.) When an unscrupulous railroad official (Dallas Roberts) offers Dan $200 to escort the infamous murderer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to Yuma, where he'll be arrested and sentenced to hang, Dan has no choice but to accept, despite his concerned wife's (Gretchen Mol) protests.

In Daves' original, the tension between these two men drives the entire film. (The entire second half of the 1957 version, in fact, takes place in a Yuma hotel room, as Evans and Wade converse while awaiting the titular train.) Mangold sets his sights on larger themes about redemption and sacrifice, and clearly sees this story as an excuse to work in as many classic Western scenes, conventions and set-ups as humanly possible. For the most part, it works...until it doesn't.

I think my largest problem with Mangold as a filmmaker is that he doesn't seem to respect his audience. His "thriller," Identity, contains arguably the lamest twist ending in recent film history. His last film, Walk the Line, while well-made, includes some truly groan-worthy dialogue, as when Reese Witherspoon chirps "you cain't walk no line!" to our hero, in a ludicrously obvious echo of the film's title/theme.

Here, too, the script by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas occasionally gets silly, as when Ben Wade repeatedly tries to charm women by asking if they have green eyes. But that's not the film's largest problem by a longshot. I'll try my best to avoid spoilers, but it must be said that the last 15 minutes of 3:10 to Yuma are intensely silly, even ridiculous. It's as if Mangold thought that 100 minutes or so of really watchable, entertaining Western action would put everyone in such a positive, upbeat state of mind, they'd overlook the fact that his conclusion makes no sense - he tries to fall back on our goodwill towards his movie. This is not a strong bet.

Now, if it were just a plot twist or two that seems far-fetched, that I could deal with. That wouldn't ruin an otherwise solid movie (and Yuma really is a solid, well-done genre film for that first 100 minutes). But the conclusion of the film seems to cancel out all that has come before. A character makes a transformation that feels terrifically out of touch with all that has been established about his character; not only are his choices not foreshadowed by the screenplay, they are not set-up in any way. A man suddenly decides to change everything about himself and his life, for no real reason, and nothing we have seen about him before indicates that he'd be likely to do such a thing.

The film seems to say that anyone can be redeemed, that our present actions say more about who we are than our mistakes in the past. But Mangold fails to show us anyone actually redeeming himself or herself, save for the one character who was pretty much good from the beginning. Everyone else's redemption just sort of arrives, on cue, out of nowhere like a gift from Screenplay Heaven.

The pat, on the nose conclusion is particularly disappointing because Mangold, his writers and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (who also shot Walk the Line) get so much right. The action scenes in particular far exceed any recent Western. (I honestly can't think of a single contemporary Western to build to a shootout as intense, gritty and stylish as 3:10's climax.) The film feels natural and authentic, not glossy and overly-polished like so many Hollywood period films. And it's amazingly permitted to be violent, and to show the consequences of its violence. Some scenes in 3:10 are surprisingly brutal, not because I'm shocked to see such gore depicted in what was once thought of as a family genre, but because the violence in such films tends to be fraudulent, delighting in the kinetics of a gun battle without wanting to linger on the aftermath, with its resultant blood and dead people.

Performance-wise, Christian Bale's kind of saddled with the non-arcing, predictable straight-arrow ranch-hand part, flatly played by Van Heflin in the original. He's good but it's a pretty staid, reserved turn. Western vet Russell Crowe (you'll recall, he was Cort in The Quick and the Dead) has the showier role as the steely, unflappable criminal Ben Wade, and makes the most out of every scene. The last time we got an appearance from this Russell Crowe, rather than his phone-lobbing, overacting, Oscar-grubbing doppelganger, was 2003's Master and Commander. Before that, 1999's The Insider. Once every few years, Crowe just finds the right role and absolutely kills it, and he's so good in 3:10 to Yuma, I'm willing to overlook Cinderella Man.

The supporting cast is likewise above reproach. Ben Foster, whom I recall most clearly as Claire's squirrely, bisexual art school boyfriend on "Six Feet Under," goes big and theatrical as Wade's psychopathic right-hand man Charlie Prince, and it somehow works. (His performance reminded me of Michael Biehn's in Tombstone, but in a good way.) Peter Fonda gives terrific "old coot" as a Pinkerton detective trailing Wade. And "Firefly" veteran Alan Tudyk injects some much-needed levity in a minor role as the Bisbee, Arizona town doctor.

I was really really with this movie for a while, which made the peculiar conclusion all the more unsatisfying. After the jumbled third act of Copland, the sub-sub-sub Shyamalan idiocy of Identity and now the highly questionable turnabouts in the last moments of 3:10, this is clearly something Mangold needs to work on. Endings matter.


Peter L. Winkler said...

The reversal of Ben Wade's character also occurs in the original film version. I suppose Mangold and his writers were saddled with it, though I suppose they could have rethought it, as reviews of the remake reveal that other changes were made. I have only seen the original on laserdisc and I agree that the ending is unbelievable.

Lons said...

Yes, the original does have a similar ending, and though it's still not terrifically believable, it doesn't undermine the film in the same way. The 1957 version is really about Wade's personality and transformation - the whole film sort of leads up to this inevitable moment when he stops being a bad man.

The new film essentially abandons this conceit until the final 5 minutes. He's unredeemable - even taking joy in killing and theft - and then, suddenly, he's not any more.