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3:10 to Yuma B+
Year Released: 2007
Director James Mangold tends to cruise below the fame radar a bit. Few would recognize his name offhand, and his auteurial stamp lacks the distinctiveness that makes people notice a Scorsese or a Spielberg. And yet, as he delivers his sixth film into theaters -- a remake of the western classic 3:10 to Yuma -- it's worth noting that the previous five were all pretty darn good. His efforts are always polished and professional, undertaken with the devotion of a talented craftsman and the honesty of someone who fully intends to give his audience their money's worth. He has proven adept at multiple genres -- with films ranging from horror to romantic comedy to crime drama to musical biopic -- and two A-list actresses have Oscars on their shelves thanks in part to him. So while the prospect of revisiting 3:10 to Yuma might not initially fire the blood (and Mangold would doubtless be the first to admit that the original needs no improvement), the man's resume suggests some intriguing possibilities.
Expectations rise another notch with the two names above the marquee: Russell Crowe, a great actor who's struggled to find a decent vehicle of late, and Christian Bale, his ready equal who appears to have entered his prime. Crowe's Ben Wade is a charming sociopath whose outlaw gang has put the fear of God into the forces trying to tame post-Civil War Arizona. Bale's Dan Evans, on the other hand, is a good man discarded by those selfsame powers. Crippled while serving in the Union Army, he runs a small-time cattle ranch near Bisbee, where the dry desert climate helps his youngest son endure an acute case of tuberculosis. But the railroad is coming and his property is worth more if the wealthy and powerful can drive him off of it. When Wade is finally captured, Evans has reached the end of his rope: terrorized by his creditors and rapidly losing whatever respect his family still holds for him. Then the railroad company offers a $200 reward for anyone who will help escort Wade to the titular prison train bound for Yuma. The money would solve a lot of Evans' problems, prompting him to volunteer. But Wade's gang won't give up their leader so easily, and Wade himself has infernal powers of persuasion which he doesn't hesitate to use on anyone who might help spring him.
The original film focused primarily on the outlaw's nasty way with head games, playing on his captors' fears and insecurities during the long wait for the train. The meat of it took place in a single hotel room, and relied upon Glenn Ford's brilliant performance as Wade to help carry the day. Mangold expands the scope for his version: enhancing earlier sequences and bringing in new characters to deepen what had been essentially a two-man drama. The most important addition is a bigger role for Evans' son William (Logan Lerman), entranced by the outlaw's bravado and disgusted by his father's seeming cowardice in the face of threats. Other notable figures include Wade's psychotic right-hand man (Ben Foster, who's developing a knack for interesting roles), the always-welcome Alan Tudyk as a veterinarian conscripted to join the escort, and Peter Fonda's veteran bounty hunter, whose hatred of Wade conceals violent hypocrisies beneath a pious exterior.
But though the larger cast brings increased complexities to the plot, Mangold insists on keeping things as lean and taut as possible. The expanded field of play allows for the requisite shots of pretty landscapes and galloping horses, which he expertly deploys without detracting from the story's central moral dilemma. Evans has learned the difficulty of doing the right thing -- and the fact that it has earned him few rewards -- but he refuses to compromise his beliefs in the face of the outlaw's honeyed words. Wade, on the other hand, is committed to survival of the fittest, and while he's reluctant to kill unnecessarily, he'll cheerfully slaughter a man in his sleep if it means avoiding the gallows. Both of them resist the corruption of encroaching society, though their fight comes from opposite ends of the moral spectrum. They might have been allies in another life, but as time grows short and the train draws closer, their grudging respect turns into a tension-filled battle of wits... with the "civilized" powers-that-be waiting to destroy whichever one blinks first. Crowe's bad-boy charisma and Bale's knack for bottled-up anguish make an almost ideal mixture to convey that conflict, further exacerbated by William's divided loyalties between the two. The screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Haas lends plenty of heft to their verbal sparring, which Mangold punctuates through Wade's briefer but equally engaging confrontations with his other captors.
Beyond the psychological war, 3:10 to Yuma features numerous straight-up action scenes, delivered with searing brutality and further emphasizing the fragility of Evans' ethics. In a land where might makes right and the well-dressed bankers presuming to run things have even fewer scruples than Wade, how is one to assert one's basic decency? 3:10 to Yuma works best as a marvelous meditation on that question, using 21st-century cynicism to distinguish it from its more straight-laced predecessor. Only at the end do things begin to flag, amid an astounding gunfight that nevertheless produces more than its share of head-scratching contrivances. But Mangold compensates during the preceding 100 minutes both through sheer kinetic excitement and with the darker currents swirling beneath his principles.
Taken together, they place 3:10 to Yuma in honored company: not quite on par with the 1957 version, perhaps, but certainly acting as a proper update instead of just a lazy rehash. I often talk about the western's supposed decline -- bandied about ever since Unforgiven 15 years ago. Films like this, however, don't suggest encroaching extinction so much as increased refinement: fewer takes on the genre with a corresponding rise in individual quality. 3:10 to Yuma provides strong evidence for such an argument, as does its director, who refuses to settle for anything but grade-A filmmaking here. With each new movie he makes, that standard is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Review published 09.07.2007.
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