Friday, September 14, 2007

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Dir. - James Mangold

Viewed: From the Balcony


God bless the western. I must say I'm happy to see the genre making a small comeback this year and I can't quite believe that once upon a time, around my pre- to early-teen years, I had no love for the oater and would declare this on a semi-regular basis. I chalk that up to my father's predilection for the introverted, black and white variety such as Will Penny and My Darling Clementine. Not exactly the easiest material for a kid still playing his copy of Evil Dead 2 for his friends every weekend to wrap his head around. Boring stuff. But eventually I would discover the greatness of Peckinpah and Leone's cowboy stories and then, over time, even come to enjoy some of the Duke's better efforts as well as those other two.

They say there isn't a story out there that can't be told in a western picture. It's an interesting thought and I suppose one of the reasons that, like rock n' roll, the western will never die. It's a versatile and sturdy genre that lends itself to both suspenseful actioners and revealing characters studies equally well. Some of the better ones manage to cover both of those bases; much like today's movie: James Mangold's version of 3:10 to Yuma.

Being a whole lot more into watching movies than I am reading, I tend to enjoy cinematic books. I really can't help but be shooting the movie version of the book in my head no matter what I'm reading -- it's a switch I can't turn off. This goes to say that Elmore Leonard is one of my favorite authors. This ends up hurting a little bit on the other side of the fence because his books have a bad percentage rate as far as getting turned into good movies. I can't say for sure how much Leonard's 15 page short story ends up on the screen in the way of plot points or dialog, having never read this one, but I can say that this is a rare happy case of successfully getting his essence up there on the screen. Which is to say, the same things that make a good western are what make a good Elmore Leonard story: great characters who unfold themselves over a brisk, involving story.

3:10 to Yuma is in no way a perfect movie. There are a couple false notes that are more or less kept to the ending, but for the most part it's a well made, engaging, highly enjoyable movie. The western pretty much lives or dies on the strength of it characters, and this one gives us at least three memorable ones. Christian Bale continues his hitting streak to 8 movies as Dan Evans, a rancher who has, as he puts it, been asking God to cut him a break but God ain't replyin'. He's lost half a leg, the water for his ranch, his eldest son's respect, anything but pity from his wife, and at the start of the story, his barn. So when the chance arises to get a nice sum of $200 to help a group of men transport the renowned leader of a band of thieves and killers, Ben Wade, (played with a contagious amount of fun by Russell Crowe) who got himself arrested after a little too much post stagecoach robbing celebration, across the state to catch the eponymous train that will take Mr. Wade to prison, he jumps at the chance. Not only can he get his ranch back in shape but maybe a little bit of respect, too.

The main obstacle in Dan's goal is Ben's second in command, the enjoyably criminally insane Charlie Prince, played by Ben Foster. Not only does Ben Foster get to play the guy with the coolest name, he also delivers a helluva eye-opening performance. I'd just gotten done watching season 3 of "Six Feet Under" a week or two before seeing this movie and I kept asking myself, who the hell is this guy? (I believe this could be a sign that I've successfully burned X-Men 3 out of my mind, which makes me quite happy.) He really transforms himself into this character and brings a level of intensity and menace that is wholly unexpected given the meek, uncomfortable character he plays in "Six Feet Under". In a movie full of scene stealers, he comes away with some full pockets.

I'll take a moment here to give a pat on the back to Alan Tudyk; a guy I always enjoy whenever he pops up. He plays a doctor specializing in horses who's assigned to look after the gut shot Peter Fonda and gets the movie's biggest laugh with a perfectly timed line regarding the quality of lady you'll find in Dodge City.

So it's a highly enjoyable ride until we get to the big climax. When it gets time to start the guns a blazin' for the inevitable big shootout the movie takes a little logic jump here and there to serve the story. While none of these minor contrivances ruin the movie they do step on the brakes at some inappropriate times. But for me, they did such a good job building up the suspense for the final scene while our guys are holed up in a hotel room waiting for that train to show up, the "how the hell are they gonna get out of this one" scenario -- who's gonna die and how, that by the time they had to leave that hotel room they had me so invested in the characters and the outcome that the few hiccups that occurred afterward were merely unfortunate.

This is an easy recommend for me. I'd be hard pressed to think of a person who wouldn't be won over by this movie. Wait, that wouldn't be you would it, Padraic?



Nope, Sean, I was a big fan.

It's hard to argue with a movie that can contain it's fair share of corny dialogue, cliches, and absurd plot points and still be entertaining, engaging and, at times, even moving. Consider the following sequence (paraphrase):

Man: Do you remember Velvet?
Woman: Who doesn't remember Velvet?
Actor moves in close, placing his hand on the nape of the woman's neck.
M: You look kinda skinny.
W: I don't feel skinny.
M: I don't mind skinny girls, so long as they have green eyes. Do you have green eyes?
Woman turns around slowly, eyes downcast, slowing turning as Man puts his hand on her cheek. Finally, she raises her head, and opens her eyes, brown.
M: That's okay, they don't have to be green.
Passionate kissing. Cut to the next morning, Man drawing naked woman from behind.

Now, I have no idea who wrote this (or if it was in the original 3:10 with Glenn Ford) and I have no idea what it means, or why it is sexy. But it is, thanks mostly to Crowe's fierce stare, and complete sincerity. We don't really know if he knows the woman, or what it is with green eyes (they pop up again later on), but if Russell says it, me, and that woman, are going to believe it.

Crowe, as the notorious outlaw Ben Wade, gets most of the fun lines and performances here, but I think Bale is the real star (or, I should say, actor); while Crowe can deliver some frightening levels of violence, he also has the latitude to ham it up a bit, winking and nodding at both his captors and the audience in between bouts of killing. Bale, however, completely loses himself in the role of Dan Evans, destitute rancher who decides to help escort Wade to the train. Bale is all sorrow and pity here, and never once loses that note, or reveals in any way that he is a famous movie star; he is Evans.

To me, the most fascinating part of the Evans character is the tension in his reasons for escorting Wade; is it really his unshakable faith in what's right, or is he just doing it for the money; there is a revealing scene late in the movie that suggests it may be more the latter, despite all the righteous pronouncements. I think there is even an unsympathetic view of Evans: that he has dragged his family down by refusing to fight, and that, when the chips are down, and Wade is about to finish him off, he can only resort to self-pity. His is a very very sad story, but this is no tragedy.

As Sean alluded to, the end does suffer from some flights of fancy, but at the center of the storm of bullets and shouting, the final transformation of the relationship between Wade and Evans is pulled off perfectly. My friend Ian remarked that Wade's decision could have so easily come of as contrived or forced, but that the plotting of the movie made it seem natural, even inevitable. In an interview on the Charlie Rose show, director James Mangold remarked that the ending of the original 3:10 was too neat, conventional, and happy for today's time. "It was a 50's ending, perfect for its time and place, it would have seemed false today." (He also revealed, in a neat bit of trivia, that the Sly Stalone character in Copland (Mangold's underrated 1997 film), Heflin, was named after the actor who played Evans in the original, Van Helfin. The similarities between the two characters are no coincidence.) While the Wade/Evans partnership may falter under the most cynical interpretations in the modern era, it is a credit to two hours of carefully paced scenes and two committed actors.

Unfortunately, Mangold is still the exception in Hollywood today, and 3:10 likely won't be breaking any box office records, despite the requisite big stars, cool explosions, and improbable gun play. There are just far too many places in this movie where Mangold leaves the thinking to the audience. One reason the western has been on the decline for thirty or so years is because it demands a lot from the audience. Unlike the gangster or crime genre (which has been in the ascendant over this time), most of the tension and action is within the characters themselves, and while gangster movies can fill the downtime between violence with meals at Italian restaurants, fast talk, and womanizing, for the most part, all westerns have is the landscape and the facial expressions of bearded guys on horses. You can laugh at John Wayne all you want, but it still amazes me that the most bankable action star in Hollywood for 40 years was in so many movies in which action was secondary to character, landscape, and, well, silence and contemplation.

Mangold may not be John Ford or Sergio Leone, but at least he isn't John Woo.



Good observations, Paddy. Ain't it true that even though we should know better, there are a couple moments (that damn scene in the hotel room!) in this movie where you can't help but actually feel for these characters. But the truth is they do earn it. More precisely Bale earns it -- but the scenes work due to everyone involved. Besides a few shaky scenes in the very beginning and end I can't see how someone could not fall for these guys.

I don't laugh at John Wayne so much as scratch my head. He certainly had charisma to spare, but as far as acting chops and range goes -- well, I might go so far as to say Vin Diesel has more going on in his repertoire than Mr. Wayne. Even John Ford wished he didn't have to work with the guy so often. But whatever, he was an icon and lord knows, just as much then as now, people find comfort in the familiar.

One thing I've been finding interesting in looking back at the western genre is the freedom it can give the writer. Inherent in placing your story in this time and place is that there's going to be a basic motivation: survival. Choices have to be made and back then you didn't have a whole lot of them. Are you going to live a noble life or a corrupt one? When the survival rate is so low to begin with these lines can be blurred rather easily and to great rewards. And much like the samurai stories that have gotten so easily adapted to this genre, a man's pride can mean life or death in these conditions.

This is all to say that the western allows the writer and the story to focus more on character than plot. The more modern a story gets the more the plot tends to get in the way of character. I call this the Cell Phone Effect. Strip technology and modern trappings away from a picture and things get a whole lot clearer. Zodiac is another example of this principle, but unfortunately it's another example of a movie that didn't catch on with audiences. It would be interesting to see if there's a small movement of Hollywood filmmakers, undeterred by box office receipts, going back to tell stories in a way that made movies work in previous generations rather than unattractively struggling to find a connection with this generation based on gimmicks, remakes and "re-imaginings".

Last thing: I know Dan Evan's and his wife (Gretchen Mol does succeed in making the best out of a small role that may not have even registered in another actresses hands) are having some problems when we meet them. And so I do have to wonder if Christian Slater's Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh might have made his way through town at some point when Dan was away -- because I'll be damned if that kid of his doesn't bare more than a little resemblance to Arkansas Dave.

Also, Paddy, I'm suggesting to you that the second video here is actually better than that Kurt Russel Tombstone movie. I'd take the Costner version out of the equation, but I'd rather say that Tombstone is the worst of the three. And I don't think that's going out on a limb.


Sean said...

And so, Paddy, Tombstone is a better movie than any one of the Spider-man movies or even one of the Pirate movies? You have to realize that some of these broad statements you like to make are coming across as very hypocritical. You call me an actor fan-boy but if a movie stars a Russell or Norris your pretentious rules don't apply.

Padraic said...

Funny you mention Tombstone.

I saw the last 30 minutes at Aaron's house the other day, and it was pretty silly.

I've only seen the first Spider-Man, but yes, Tombstone was a far more enjoyable experience.

Sean said...

If by silly you mean badly shot, poorly scripted bastardization, than yes, it's pretty damn silly. On the other hand Sipder-Man is a well shot, well scripted, effective piece of storytelling. Tombstone looks like it was made for the USA cable channel for shit's sake. Say what you will about Spider-Man but it's at least cinematic.