Published at: Aug. 24, 2007, 11:57 a.m. CST by merrick
"They're gonna hang me in the morning. Before the day is done. They're gonna hang me in the morning. I'll never see the sun."
Greetings AICN, MiraJeff here aboard the 3:10 to Yuma, the James Mangold-directed western starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as opposite sides of the law. Now I've never seen the Delmer Daves original with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin but this solid remake makes me want to go back and catch up with it on Netflix.
(In the interest of full disclosure, this review contains minor spoilers and I apologize for its length in advance.)
Bale plays Dan Evans, a wounded Civil War veteran and family man. Mangold wastes no time setting up Dan's circumstances, thrusting us right into the middle of the action as his barn is burned to the ground because of an outstanding debt to some local moneymen. When Dan tells his family (including Gretchen Mol in the thankless wife role) that he'll "take care of it," his eldest son, Will, (Logan Lerman, looking like the child Ian Somerhalder and Christian Slater never had), replies, "no you won't," a telling line illustrating Dan's ineffectiveness and the existing tension between father and son, whose relationship, as I understand it, has been considerably more fleshed-out than in the original in order to feed the characters' motivations.
Later, while riding horseback with his sons, Dan witnesses a daring robbery executed by a gang of murderous thieves led by Ben Wade (Crowe), a legendary outlaw whose vicious reputation precedes him. This very cool sequence, wherein the Wade gang ambushes some pinkertons riding with a lot of money on a horse-drawn wagon (the armored car of the Wild West), features some serious firepower despite the time period's limited weaponry. The attack is felt from every angle, with an all-seeing sniper hiding in the desert brush while Wade's right-hand man, Charlie Prince (an intense Ben Foster, in fine form), runs the ground operation.
Ever the strong, silent-type leader, Wade opts to stand back and wait, his icy stare an effective means of communicating with his posse. Of course, there's more to Wade than there seems, as evidenced by his fondness for sketching birds and signing his drawings. But when it comes time to lead, Wade is never shy about his ruthlessness. In the aftermath of the robbery, one of Wade's men, played by Empire Records' Johnny Whitworth, does an inadequate job of checking to make sure that the pinkertons are dead, and Wade doesn't hesitate to shoot him on the spot. (Sidenote: Considering the careers that nearly everyone in Empire Records went on to enjoy, it's a bit sad to see Whitworth reduced to corpse duty.) Eventually Wade discovers that Dan and his children have witnessed the entire incident and the men exchange words while Will stares at Whitworth's gunshot wound, amazed by what a single bullet can do.
Fearing for his family's safety, Dan can only watch as Wade steals his horses (which he later returns) and sets off with his gang to Bixby, where a not-so-innocent Charlie alerts the authorities to the robbery. They promptly leave to investigate, allowing Wade and Co. the chance to set up shop in town. While there, Wade seduces a barmaid (Vinessa Shaw) and lets his guard down in one of the film's only missteps. It's not long before Bale returns with the local cops who promptly capture Wade, pledging to bring him to justice by way of the 3:10 to Yuma. But first they have to find good, trustworthy men who will deliver Wade to the train station, men who won't be tempted to release the criminal for a hearty share of his loot. Unsurprisingly, Dan is the first to volunteer. While we know that the job offers a measly $100 payday and Dan needs as much money as he can get his hands on, it's obvious that his reasons for accepting the challenge are not purely financially motivated. There's a pride element involved, and though we feel like Dan has nothing to prove, having fought honorably for the North, we later learn that he isn't quite the hero we've thought him to be; His gimpy leg is a result of friendly fire suffered in the midst of a cowardly retreat, not a bravely earned badge of courage.
En route to Contention, Dan and Wade run into an assortment of characters, one of whom is Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda), a big-mouth bounty hunter who Wade likens to a "song with one-note." Though Fonda proves he's still a shit-kicker during McElroy's one-sided physical encounter with Wade, it's Wade who gets the last laugh, a recurring theme in the film seeing as scene-stealer Kevin Durand also meets a grisly fate after taunting Wade with a haunting verse. Elsewhere, Alan Tudyk plays the requisite character named 'Doc,' only the joke is, he's a veterinarian. And in an inexplicable casting decision, Luke Wilson appears in an awkward and distracting cameo in which he's not even the leader of a trio that later captures Wade upon one of his several 'escapes.'
As we should all know by now, 3:10 to Yuma's release was moved up a month to beat Brad Pitt's western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, into theaters. As such, it's one of the earliest 'prestige' pictures out of the gate, even though it really isn't that sort of material. This is a gritty, rugged genre picture. People are bound to see Bale and Crowe's names attached and start thinking about the film's award prospects, but as much as I really dug the film, I don't think it's really in contention for any Oscar nominations.
Having starved himself to frightening proportions in not one but two movies, in addition to returning the Batman franchise to glory, there's no question that Bale is amongst the finest actors of his generation, but despite the respect as he commands from voters, he's more likely to be recognized for his work in Rescue Dawn than here. It's no surprise that Crowe impressed me the most given his body of work and the two Oscars he has to show for it, but while I think he belongs in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor, the Academy will probably view the role as more of a co-lead. And since the film is adapted from an Elmore Leonard short story by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, there's always an outside chance it could land an Adapted Screenplay nod. One of the script's strengths is its surprisingly wicked sense of humor, delivered with deadpan seriousness by Crowe and Foster. A joke about Wade's preference for green eyes made the critics in the screening I attended howl with laughter, while Foster's one-liner, "I hate posses," is worthy of t-shirt status in any cinephile's dresser. Credit must also be given to Marco Beltrami's fantastic score, although the unfinished version that was screened for critics had a temporary sound mix and also featured excerpts from Gustavo Santaolalla's Babel score. Snooty awards talk aside, Crowe's performance makes for one of the more charismatic movie villains in recent memory. As much as we're rooting for Dan to get Wade on that train, there was a part of me that wanted to see the two of them ride off into the sunset together. They share great chemistry on screen and personally I’d love to have seen them team up and go on a Butch and Sundance-type adventure together.
Speaking of endings, I won't spoil anything other than to say that I've been told by older, wiser critics that the ending has been significantly altered, though there was no consensus on which outcome was preferred. Personally, I felt the ending was the weakest part of the film. The fairly generic shoot-'em-up climax (on a pretty fake-looking set) turns Foster into the Terminator and is filmed with a lousy sense of space in which you can't tell where any of the characters are in relation to each other, especially when you take into consideration how well the rest of the film is staged and choreographed. Variety's Todd McCarthy took the words right out of my mouth in writing about the ending-- "Qualms persist, as aspects of the physical action and psychological motivation remain murky and forced." I couldn’t have said it any better myself. I thought that throughout the film, and specifically the ending, Wade made things too easy on Dan. He has plenty of opportunities to get away, and when you factor in his reputation as a cold-blooded killer, it makes no sense that he didn't exploit Dan's situation and take advantage of his physical limitations and lack of allies. Perhaps that's because of Wade's unwavering faith that his posse will rescue him, but the other part of it became a believability issue for me. It's obvious that these men have an unspoken mutual respect for each other, and perhaps Wade was more reluctant to act because he was grew up an orphan and he doesn't want Will to end up like him, but in a life or death situation, I have to believe that Wade would show a little less conscience than he does.
Of course, when all is said and done, 3:10 to Yuma is about wanting to leave behind a legacy and set an example for your kids. After he was injured, the government paid Dan for his bum leg so that they could walk away guilt-free. Wade makes a similar offer if Dan will let him go, but this time, he's smart enough to know better. The lesson Dan's trying to impart on Will is that you can't always walk away. Sometimes, you have to stand up for what is fair and what is right. In this case, Dan wants William to "remember your old man walked Ben Wade to that station when nobody else would." That's a hell of a legacy to leave behind and Wade, who has no flesh and blood to call his own, respects him all the more for it. And though Wade doesn't owe Dan a damn thing, maybe that's why he makes the decision that he does in the film's satisfying closing shot.
At the end of the day, 3:10 to Yuma is a well-written, great-looking Western worth getting excited about, featuring a pair of solid performances from two top-notch actors doing what they do best; snarling like a couple of bad-asses.
That'll do it for me, folks. I'll be back with a look at King of California, The Nines, Eastern Promises and In the Valley of Elah.
'Til next time time, this is MiraJeff signing off...