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3:10 to Yuma (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 07 September 2007
ImageThis remake of the 1957 movie of the same title treats the original with respect; this one runs almost half an hour longer, so some material had to be added—and largely the added material fits in smoothly. There is one significant change, however, that is not an improvement.

The original starred Glenn Ford and Van Heflin; Russell Crowe and Christian Bale have the same roles here—and are actually better than Ford and Heflin were. It was one of Ford’s very rare villainous roles, but he played it as he did his other Westerns—straightforward with his own roguish, even impish, charm.

Crowe is also charming, but he’s a harder, flintier man, more mysterious and varied; he occasionally does little pencil sketches of things that catch his eye—a hawk, a woman he’s just had sex with, his opponent Bale. Crowe is a strong actor and almost a natural movie star—when he’s on screen, you rarely watch anyone else; you rarely WANT to watch anyone else. And Ben Wade, his character, is the leader of a band of outlaws whose loyalty to him is so strong it only wavers when he unexpectedly shoots one of his band dead. Crowe is the toughest hombre for miles around, but he’s relaxed in his authority, dresses well, talks softly. But somewhere in the past, he lost his soul—and he knows it.

Bale is Dan Evans, a Civil War veteran who lost a foot in the conflict (this is evidently a metaphor, but it’s never clear just what it represents); he’s now married with two boys, trying hard to eke out a living as a cattle rancher on Arizona’s arid plains. William (Logan Lerman), his eldest son, is fond of dime novels, but not fond of his father; he’s come to regard him as the next thing to a coward. Dan’s borrowed money that he can’t pay back, and the man who lent him the money is trying to force the Evans family off the land, so he can sell it to the approaching railroad for big bucks. (The idea that the railroad is coming, and will change the West, is carefully interwoven through this film—which is named for the arrival time of the nearest train.)
Wade and his men hold up a stagecoach transporting money; it’s bristling with Pinkerton agents while a tough old bounty hunter, Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda, who’s terrific) rides shotgun. The coach is even equipped with a Gatling gun—but Wade and his men prevail, partly by using Evans’ wandering herd of cattle. They kill all aboard except McElroy, and take the horses of Dan and his sons, though they leave them safely a few miles away. Wade and his men ride on into Bisbee, the coach’s destination, where they pass themselves off as trail herders. Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), very adept with the two pistols he carries cross-draw fashion, wryly reports the loss of the coach, and as the local marshal and the Southern Pacific representative, Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), ride out, Wade and his men settle in.

That is until Dan arrives in town. Wade tends to respect and like the weather-beaten rancher, but also considers him to probably be a weakling, easily intimidated. He’s cynically tossing coins to Dan when the returning marshal and his men take him captive—but all his men are still on the loose. It’s quickly decided to have Wade taken to Contention, three days’ ride away, to catch the 3:10 to Yuma, which will take Wade to a Federal court and the Yuma prison.

It hasn’t rained in months; the landowner after his property has shut of Dan’s water; things are getting desperate—so he offers to help take Wade to Contention for $200. Others on the journey include Byron, brought to Bisbee by Dan, who’s badly wounded but mostly made of leather, local doctor—a veterinarian—Potter (Alan Tudyk), Butterfield himself, and one or two others. A clever trick at the Evans ranch, where the Contention-bound barred coach stops, fools Wade’s pursuing men.

The group, with Wade as their prisoner, sets out across the plains. Wade is very intelligent—he’s constantly watching everyone around him, assessing their strengths and weaknesses, then trying to use the weaknesses as weapons. He does the same thing in other contexts—he successfully seduces a barmaid with talk of “green eyes,” and tries the same stunt on Dan’s wife—who has green eyes. He’s not out to seduce her sexually, but hoping to have her try to intercede with Dan on his behalf. Despite his father’s anger, William Evans shows up and joins the group.

Tensions mount as they cross the desert, as Ben watches and waits for his opportunities. There’s likely to be several—they have to go through a pass where renegade Apaches are known to ambush travelers. Before William catches up with the group, he passes a couple of people staked out on rocks by the Indians, waiting to die.

Control of the group passes in and out of Ben’s hands several times, and his slight respect for Dan grows as they travel. They also encounter a group of railway workers, blasting their way through the mountains, but unfortunately, Ben’s past has preceded him with several of the railway security officers. (One of whom is an unbilled Luke Wilson.)

When the reduced group finally reaches Contention, Butterfield installs Ben and Dan in a hotel room to await for the arrival of the 3:10 train for Yuma. About a third of the original film took place in the hotel room; director Delmer Daves skillfully built suspense while the two men confront each other, the rancher tense but determined, the killer amusing himself and waiting for his men to arrive.

Here, director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) isn’t interested in that kind of tension; his goals are elsewhere, primarily in contrasting the two central characters. They’re more similar than Dan wants to think—even than Ben wants to realize. We learn a few bits of information about Ben’s past, which is mostly bloody and lawless, including that he read the Bible cover to cover. In the press notes, Crowe says that Ben is still stuck in the Old Testament. The camera occasionally catches Ben watching Dan, impressed against his will by the man’s honesty and clear sense of right and wrong.

The screenplay is credited to Halsted Welles, but that’s because he wrote the original, and because so much of his work remains in this remake. The original dealt swiftly with the journey from Bisbee to Contention; this script, also credited to the writing team of Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, takes its time making the journey, and compresses the action in Contention.

The dialogue is often well-written. When Ben realizes his men have been tricked by the action at Dan’s ranch, he mutters, “Remind me not to play poker in this town.” Dan explains his decision to help take Wade to Contention: “I’ve been standing on one leg for three long years waitin’ for God to do me a favor,” so now he’s doing one for himself. William tries to protest that Wade isn’t as bad as his men; there’s resignation in Ben’s voice as he responds, “Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as Hell”—which suggests that Ben regards himself with a degree of self-loathing. Sometimes the dialogue is a shade overdrawn, too predictive, too on the nosey, as when Wade explains why he never does anything for anyone: “You see that grateful look in their eyes; I imagine it makes you feel like Christ Himself.”

Mangold has long admired the original “3:10 to Yuma;” in his interesting crime film, “Cop Land,” he named Sylvester Stallone’s character “Heflin” after one of the stars of the Daves movie. He didn’t seek to make a revisionist Western here; though the violence and action are contemporary—strong and detailed—the movie itself is blessedly a straight-forward, no-bones-about-it Western. The weaknesses lie primarily in the occasionally too-direct writing, and that one element I will not comment on. That weakness may be enough to damage the film at the boxoffice, and it’s a change that, though in keeping with the rough, almost brutal, nature of the film, wasn’t needed.

The acting is uniformly excellent, and Crowe in particular gives a magnetic, movie star performance. Wade is a complex character—he was in the original, too, though Ford didn’t ordinarily play complicated roles—and his internal journey is as interesting as his external passage from Bisbee to Contention. Crowe is as relaxed and in control as Ben Wade is when he’s with his gang, but it’s not a showy performance either. He fits into the landscape and the cast; it’s just that he’s the most interesting thing in either of them.

Christian Bale always disappears into his roles, including that of Bruce Wayne, and he does it here, too. He has slipped into Dan Evans’ hide, never making a single move that isn’t entirely and believably in character. He rarely smiles, but when he does, it’s like the sun peeking out from behind a dark cloud. Wade may be the central character, but there’s no doubt that Evans is the hero of this story.

Logan Lerman has turned up doing good performances in a variety of movies, including “Hoot” and “The Patriot,” in which he played Mel Gibson’s young son. (In “What Women Want,” he played Mel Gibson—as a boy.) He’s not out of his teens, but his performance here is strong and convincing; we understand why William has quarreled with his father, why he almost but not quite regards Ben Wade as a role model (it’s those dime novels on his bed stand), and why he comes to realize his father is the more admirable of the two men.

Peter Fonda is initially almost unrecognizable as the grizzled, aging bounty hunter who has more than one personal quarrel with Ben Wade. McElroy is tough and mean, and he’s survived by being that way for a long time. He doesn’t like Ben Wade, but has little use for anyone; he’s a loner, and likes it that way. (And now Peter sounds more like his father Henry than ever.)

“3:10 to Yuma” is a tough movie that’s partly undone a little by its own toughness, by trying to be just a telling shade different from the original. But it’s also full of hard, realistic action, sudden deaths (one guy is killed with a table fork) and rugged, hard-bitten scenery. It’s not a “pretty” Western; it’s not about the landscape—but as always in the best Westerns, the landscape is still a part of the story, almost another character. The contrast between the dusty, tiny town of Bisbee and the more bustling, larger Contention (note the telegraph wires, the lights strung over the street) is fascinating but not emphasized.

No, it’s not overall as good as the original, but Russell Crowe and Christopher Bale are simply excellent in their roles; it’s an honest movie, realistic but engaging. And it is, bless the hearts of everyone involved, a real Western. I’ve sure missed them.

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