3.10 To Yuma

3.10 To Yuma

***

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The Western, that quintessentially American genre, has been pronounced dead a few times over the years but it refuses to lie down. Hot on the heels of the Gothic, surreal Seraphim Falls comes James Mangold’s remake of the 1957 classic.

It’s clearly a labour of love for a director whose best moments have tapped into the themes and images of the Western; Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line was a study of a man who embraced and redefined the outlaw mythos in the 20th century and crime thriller Copland was a classic ‘man alone’ scenario. Sylvester Stallone’s heroic modern-day sherriff was even named Freddy Heflin in a homage to Van Heflin, who in Delmer Daves’ original and the even more majestic Shane epitomised the decent, hard-working pioneer who was a core character in the genre’s golden age.

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Given the chance to have a go at the real thing, Mangold wears his influences on his sleeve from the start; extreme close-ups, arid backdrops and a score from the Play Ennio Morricone In A Day book. Clearly he’s aiming for something a bit grittier and spaghetti-flavoured than the original’s pristine black and white images and Frankie Laine theme song. But like Daves, he plunges the audience straight into the action. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) wakes to find his barn burning and his cows being stampeded off. When he tries to intervene he gets a gun butt to the back of the head for his pains.

The attack is the latest in a campaign to drive him off and sell the land to the oncoming railroad. This, coupled with a drought, has driven Dan, a crippled ex-Union sharpshooter trying to make a new life on a disability pension, to the end of his tether. One of his sons has TB: the other, Will (Logan Lerman) sees his father’s refusal to react to provocation as cowardice – an attitude that Dan’s wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) isn’t immune to either.

Riding out to round up the herd, Dan and his sons stumble on an outlaw gang pursuing the railroad’s armoured payroll coach. It’s a superb white-knuckle set piece, rounded off by the appearance of gang leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe).

If there was an actor born to be in a Western, it’s the tabloids’ favourite Kiwi. From the first shot of him on horseback, quietly sketching a songbird while he waits for the gang to ‘unleash hell’, Mangold taps into his quiet intensity and feral charisma. It’s Crowe’s first out-and-out villain role in a major studio picture and he grabs it with both hands, calmly descending into the wreckage to put the boot into the old coach guard McElroy (Peter Fonda), then shoot one of his own men for letting the driver get the jump on him.

Spotting Dan and his sons, he takes their horses then rides into town and sends the marshall on a wild goose chase. The gang disperse with the proceeds but Wade stays to romance a local saloon girl. Dan gets a ride back into town with the marshall’s men and spots Wade, then helps to capture him. Railroad bureaucrat Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) hires McElroy to lead a posse to get Wade to the town of Contention, where the titular iron horse will take him to justice. Dan, realising the $200 dollars on offer will tide him over, enlists.

The posse’s journey is the main addition to the original and affords Mangold the chance to revisit some other genre staples (a skirmish with the Apaches, a narrow escape from a hell-hole mining camp). But it also fleshes out the character of Will, who tags along with the posse in secret.

Eventually the much-depleted posse reach Contention, but Wade’s psychotic second-in-command Charlie (Foster) is in hot pursuit and 3:10’s still a long way away... . This final wait took up nearly half of the original, turning a single hotel-room set and two actors into a masterclass in tension and a subtle character study of opposite personalities secretly yearning for each other’s lifestyles.

Mangold’s version instead proceeds far too quickly to a ludicrous, logic-defying shoot out. Everybody turns on everybody else, Dan’s limp miraculously disappears and the end result is the most disappointing climax since AI. I’ve rarely seen a film so let down by its last 15 minutes.

But the heart of the story, as Dan realises that the money’s not the reason he has to get Wade on the train, survives. Bale is a convincingly gaunt haunted presence, far removed physically from Van Heflin’s stolid yeoman but like him discovering a core of pure integrity and courage. And Crowe, like Glenn Ford in the original, brings out the dark side of his rugged leading man persona.

Pitting them in an edgy, downbeat climax like that of the original would have worked far better. I sure hope this is the start of a full-blown Western revival, but if it is, a note to other directors: don’t feel you have to end with a Peckinpah-lite bullet fest.

Reviewed on: 28 Aug 2007
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3.10 To Yuma packshot
A Civil War veteran tries to raise the money to keep his ranch afloat by escorting a notorious outlaw to jail.
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Director: James Mangold

Writer: Halstead Wells, Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard

Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Vinessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Luce Rains, Gretchen Mol, Lennie Loftin

Year: 2007

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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