Filmmakers may be the only ones lamenting the Western’s demise. Ageless though it is, there is just too little room for innovation. Still, like writing the great American novel, it seems every director wants a shake at making a cowboy picture. It’s as native to America’s cultural landscape as rock ‘n’ roll, or the automobile.
Surely the image of riding horseback across the plains, pistols and whiskey at the side, appeals to every man. This is America’s undeniable mythology, rife with archetypes of heroism, independence, and manifest destiny.
As a genre piece, James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma satisfies the requisite clichés (sweeping desert vistas, corseted women, ample gunplay), but not much else. Its urgent title sequence promises an electrifying ride, which, quite frankly, it fails to deliver.
3:10 to Yuma opens on an earnest, if overmatched, rancher named Dan Evans (Christian Bale, Batman Begins). Nearly defeated by drought, and delinquent payments to Hollander – the local land baron, Evans struggles to hold things together. When thugs torch his horse barn, the exasperated rancher feels his life slipping away. Evan’s eldest son, William (Logan Lerman, Hoot), tries to take a shot at the fleeing arsons, only to find his rifle stayed by his father’s hand. “I’ll take care of this,” Evans says. “No you won’t,” retorts the teenager, with a caustic glare. “You never do.”
Already hobbled from an ignominious stint in the Civil War, Evans is literally on his last leg. With a whisper, he admits to wife Alice (Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page) “I’ve been waiting for God to do me a favor, but he’s not listening.” Beaten and baked by the Arizona desert, Bale’s intensity looks genuine. He teeters on exhaustion, with hard stares that occasionally reveal a boyish vulnerability.
Hollander (Lennie Loftin) is the first in a cast of opportunistic miscreants that surrounds Evans, but the film’s true antagonist is Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Out to rob the railroad stagecoach of its coveted coin, Wade and his gang of outlaws arrive onscreen with predictable bravado. The charismatic Crowe (Gladiator) imbues Wade with charm, wit, and just a touch of menace. At his right is lethal minion Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, 30 Days of Night) who continues his campaign as Hollywood’s most convincing psycho. Foster’s cold, sparkling eyes belie a calculated rage. He’s refreshingly young for a gunslinger, and brimming with explosiveness, though Foster should take care not to revisit villainy too often, lest it come to define him.
Set against the Wade Gang is stagecoach Pinkerton Byron McElroy, played by Peter Fonda (Easy Rider), whose quiet disposition breaks only to show an ornery, sadistic side. Fonda earns kudos these days for his cameos, but the man still can’t act, and his self-aggrandizing commentary in the featurette borders on comical. Try not to wince when Fonda proclaims: “I don’t like riding horses, but I’m an actor, and I make it look great.”
When his roaming cattle intersect with the stagecoach heist, Evans comes face-to-face with Wade’s band of baddies. Spurred to defend his property, Evans earns his first bit of respect, and is granted safe passage by Wade, a rare break for the rancher. Back in town, however, Evans faces extinction. Begging for a reprieve against his debts, Evans is instead humiliated by Hollander. “Sometimes a man’s gotta be big enough to see how small he is,” says the land baron. Driven by desperation, Evans seizes an easy opportunity to assist in Wade’s capture, then agrees to shepherd the outlaw to Contention, where a train to Yuma – and justice – awaits.
In post-war Arizona, the railroad is a link to civilization; a place where someone like Wade must answer to an incumbent, and infinitely more powerful, authority. Trains foretell the promise of order, but also the impending destruction of the Wild West. The same relentless force that drove men like Evans and Wade to settle the frontier is already marching inexorably over them, and bringing with it the ruthless banality of a modern age.
Mangold (Walk the Line) admits in the DVD’s documentary that he means to frame real issues, like racism, amidst the fantastic backdrop of a Western. The problem is we’re given too few examples in the film. One exchange between young William and a Chinese mine laborer (quite literally a glance) hardly serves as a lesson on intolerance or cultural inequality.
Mangold’s work also lacks edginess – the raw vision that sets these genre pictures apart. One brutal fireside attack notwithstanding, the violence in 3:10 to Yuma isn’t nearly gritty enough. An Apache ambush feels pedestrian, and choreographed shootouts are tepid (unlike Unforgiven, or Open Range, which offer terrifying bursts of violence).
3:10 to Yuma was adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard, the same man who authored pulp treats like Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. Yet, ironically, Mangold dilutes what seediness might have existed on the page, leaving viewers neither a satisfying action flick (e.g., Tombstone), nor an existential fable (No Country for Old Men).
While en route to Yuma, Crowe’s notorious gunslinger is treated more like a political prisoner than the feared executioner who’s “Killed more men than the drought”. Perhaps it’s his deceptively genteel demeanor that wins Wade the favor of his captors. For despite repeatedly assaulting them, the outlaw never seems in danger of repercussion. This undermines any real suspense, and worse, betrays the film’s plausibility.
All the while, Wade shifts from predator to philanthropist; from playboy, to preacher; as if his actions serve only to satisfy the needs of the story. He’s an atheist who abhors grace, but drops proverbs with ease. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord ponders the heart.” For someone who read the Bible once, when he was seven, Wade sure can deliver some timely scripture.
Crowe is always a pleasure to watch, but there’s little here we haven’t seen before. His duality feels contrived, as if Ben Wade is really an amalgam of characters, meant to both seduce and horrify us. What we get, instead, is the caricature of an outlaw whose violence and loyalties have little emotional impact.
Mangold also errs in marginalizing the film’s ancillary cast. By treating them as stereotypes (e.g., stolid Indians, bespectacled docs), he brings little complexity to the mix. Characters dutifully play their bit parts, and even foreshadow their own demise with naïve or boastful actions. Audiences might be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be surprised when these ‘extras’ turn up dead.
It bears mentioning that 3:10 to Yuma looks terrific, with expansive locations throughout New Mexico. Moreover, the film has earned two Oscar nominations, for original score and sound, which are auspicious feats, if not reason enough to see the film. Pistols crack with the hollow dissonance of antiquity, and an off-camera assault is pitch-perfect.
Marco Beltrami, known for his work in thrillers like Red Eye, and The Omen, is dialed in to tones that set hairs on end. But in 3:10 to Yuma, the prolific Italian composer brings a more nuanced sound. Gone are the broad, masculine strokes of Ennio Morricone, giving way to a modernized, plucky score.
3:10 to Yuma’s special features highlight the extraordinary production behind a rather unremarkable stagecoach tumble, and the challenges of importing a steam train, piecemeal, from Arkansas. Laying tracks and building towns from scratch? The authenticity of 3:10 to Yuma’s sets is never in question, but one begins to wonder whether it makes much difference.
Also curious is why Mangold skimmed over the provenance of ‘the outlaw’. What birthed these fearless, loveable scoundrels? One featurette cites a post-Civil War culture of identity loss, destitution, and revenge, none of which comes into focus during the film. Viewers will be fascinated to learn that many of these colorful brutes were displaced confederates, carrying on a futile battle against Northern banks and railroad barons.
The film’s eventual showdown in Contention starts promisingly, with the shrewd and tireless Charlie Prince offering bounty for anyone who helps free Wade. It’s unsettling to see how quickly men will demonize, for the sum of $200. Given the chance to walk away, Evans balks. “No one will think less of you”, insists one deputy, eager to escape the wrath of Wade’s gang. But Evans proves unyielding, as if this act alone will define him. “No one can think less of me.”
Sadly, the climax devolves into a preposterous chase, where the once-hobbled rancher jumps rooftops alongside his captive; two unlikely heroes dodging more lead than Butch and Sundance, while a militia fires indiscriminately in their direction. Predictably, each man finds redemption, at a heavy price. “Just remember,” Evans tells young William “It was your old man walked Ben Wade to that station, when nobody else would.” If only Mangold had been so unbowed.
By all accounts, Glenn Ford’s original version is superior in its spare, less manipulative form. Half a century has done little to improve upon the source material, which is puzzling, given the pedigree and resources of this big budget production. Much as Bale and Crowe raise the ante, it’s tough to give this one high marks. Held to the mediocrity that persists in present-day Hollywood, 3:10 to Yuma might warrant accolades, but faint praise is hardly suited for the likes of this cast.